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Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project. Photo by Nicholas Garcia

File photo of students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools.

Nicholas Garcia / Chalkbeat

Colorado lawmakers try again to tighten protection of student data

Education software providers would be subject to new rules and school districts would have new responsibilities under a student data privacy bill introduced in the House Wednesday.

The bipartisan bill seeks to strike a balance between protecting student privacy and encouraging education innovation, according to its sponsors, Reps. Paul Lundeen and Alec Garnett.

Key provisions of House Bill 16-1423 would prohibit providers from selling personally identifiable student information and from using such information for targeted advertising to students. The prohibitions apply to subcontractors and make providers responsible for subcontractors’ actions. The bill also sets requirements for data security and for destruction after contracts end.

School districts would be required to adopt privacy policies. Software companies would have to give districts information about their policies and practices, and districts would have to post that material on their websites.

The bill also would apply to the apps that individual teachers use for classroom management and data. The measure’s provisions are aimed at software and services specifically designed for the educational market. They wouldn’t apply to websites and apps that are offered for general public use even if they happen to be used in schools.

The two sponsors, along with members of the State Board of Education, have been working on the proposal for months. The bill is expected to be one of the highest-profile education issues in a session that so far hasn’t generated major legislation on schools.

“This is a nation-leading effort,” said Garnett, a Denver Democrat. “Right now it’s the wild, wild West.”

“This bill is specifically designed to reestablish parents’ trust,” said Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Although overshadowed by the testing debate, data privacy was a big issue last year. But a bill died in the closing days of the 2015 session after the Senate sponsor acceded to the wishes of parent activists and declined to accept House amendments, which were considered friendlier to the software industry than the original Senate bill.

Lundeen acknowledges his new bill will face opposition.

“I think everybody’s going to push back but not enough to tip us over,” he said, adding passions may have cooled over the last year. “The environment has changed. Time has been our friend on this.”

There are several conflicting interests in the privacy debate. Some parent groups and members of the state board are pushing for tougher standards while industry fears burdensome regulation. School districts are wary of state mandates that could create more work and cost.

Data privacy has become an issue over the last couple of years, fueled partly by parent concerns about student data collected by testing companies and about student health surveys.

Some parents are specifically concerned about a school readiness evaluation tool, TS Gold, widely used in preschool and kindergarten, because it gathers data about social and behavioral traits in addition to academic skills.

The state board has made data privacy a priority and has moved to toughen the terms of contracts with testing and other companies that do business with the state. But neither the board nor the Colorado Department of Education has the power to impose security and privacy requirements on districts without legislation.

Other bill provisions would:

  • Create a detailed new definition of personally identifiable information
  • Limit providers’ ability to create student profiles except as needed to fulfill the purposes of a contract
  • Require CDE to post additional provider information on its website
  • Direct the department to provide sample privacy policies and contracts to districts
  • Set penalties for providers who violate the law
  • Give parents easier access to information about the personally identifiable information of their children

The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee, but no hearing date has been set. Colorado Springs Republican Sen. Owen Hill, chair of the Senate Education Committee, is the prime sponsor in that chamber.