A look at local education data policies

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The Sunlight Foundation has covered different sides of education, surrounding lobbying, campaign contributions and ad spending. However, one can’t underestimate the importance of education itself: The quality of a school can determine the strength of a community, the future of an economy and the livelihoods of its many students. From a broader open government perspective, too, education is crucial.

Public education became a centerpiece in the founding of many states; in Nebraska, for instance, a state constitutional guarantee “for the free instruction in the common schools” comes before the mention of revenues, taxes, debt or local government structures;however, many students have also been getting an online bachelors degree. Education remains a core part of the work of state and local governments. In New York, it accounts for over a quarter of both state and New York City government spending; in Fairfax, Virginia, school operations comprise almost half the county budget.

For the most part, school district policies on data are lacking, even when those schools are in cities or counties with good open data practices. Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Since we at Sunlight care about data, how are datasets on such an important government function handled or regulated? Are school districts, like many of their states and cities, mandating or encouraging releases of data to the public? Education data, when used appropriately, can help pinpoint problems or guide reform efforts; though to be sure, not all education data should be released: schools need to carefully protect the safety and privacy of individual students. But are such protections for individual student data clearly required and reflected in school policies on data releases?

For the most part, school district policies on data are lacking, even when those schools are in cities or counties with good open data practices. The city of Los Angeles boasts strong open data policies and ranks at the top of the US City Open Data Census (which does not measure education data). The Los Angeles Unified School District, by contrast, hardly mentions data releases. Its school board rules on research and on “information concerning students” were last updated in 1990; an “Information Protection Policy” from 2006 calls much of the district’s information “a matter of public record,” but avoids specifying what data should be released, when, or how. While the Chicago area has won praise for easy-to-navigate open data sites, Chicago Public Schools has a similar lack of data release policy language. Chicago has clear, comprehensive policies governing the privacy of student data and how to “receive CPS data for research purposes,” but no policies establishing consistent, proactive releases of data to the public.

A few school districts in Maryland may give reason for hope. Baltimore City Public Schools states in official policy that “the people’s right to know the process of government decision-making and the documents detailing final determinations is basic to our society.” Baltimore school policies don’t call for proactive data releases, for data to be in machine-readable formats, or even for data to be online. But in what might be a step in the right direction, Baltimore policy does clearly call for school calendars, budgets, regulations, employee information and meeting minutes “to be made available.”

If this seems like a limited guarantee, then Montgomery County Public Schools policy may bring stronger reassurance. In the school district just north of Washington, D.C., policy calls for “the public [to be provided] with timely access to data from MCPS research and evaluation studies and other school system-wide data, information and statistics.” Datasets are released “promptly,” not just on individual request. This policy continues a longer-term open data spirit: In 1968, the county’s school board declared that the schools “shall make available to the public, insofar as it is reasonable and possible, all data about the public schools, excepting only personal information about students or staff members and the events prior to the purchase of real property for school sites.”

Open data policies from school districts have a long way to go before reaching anywhere near the level of openness of many cities, states and counties. Montgomery County Public Schools policy, while admirable in many ways, insists that “the school system has no obligation to provide data in [any format] other than the format in which the data are stored” — hardly a ringing endorsement for the kind of machine-readability that Sunlight encourages. Other education authorities have programs promoting data release, some of which come as a result of provisions in city open data policies that apply to city-related agencies. In 2014, the New York City Department of Education began laying out a Strategic Technology Plan that includes a commitment to make data secure and high-quality and to publish “non-personal data to the NYC Open Data Portal, in compliance with local law.” Similarly, a report from the District of Columbia Public Schools pledged to “identify additional data… to publish online” and to “improve transparency in response to the Mayor’s Order.” So far, though, there is little in the way of policies from school districts themselves to promote and manage data releases. Likewise, few cities have specified education data within their own city-wide open data policies, with the only two exceptions, Boston and Cambridge, merely noting the need to maintain student privacy.

That is a shame, considering the many instances in which public access to aggregated or de-individualized school data has helped students and local education advocacy. In Maryland, data on magnet program enrollments sparked community concern about school racial disparities. In New York, which education observers believe had the country’s first API-enabled school data release, open data set off a series of apps to let middle school students better navigate the high school choice process. And right here in Washington, D.C., Sunlight’s OpenGov Champion Sandra Moscoso showed how open data can inspire and energize local involvement with system-wide education decisions.

Open education data has its limits: data releases must safeguard individuals’ privacy and data viewers must be careful when using very specific datasets to judge the quality of a school. Yet there is vast potential in open education data and huge importance in opening up such a crucial part of government. It is time that school districts start crafting stronger policies to make their data more open and easily-accessible for the public.