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Veto sends huge data cache into state limbo

When Gov. Brown abolished the state office that coordinates and researches higher education, he cut the money but left dangling the fate of hundreds of millions of academic records – including confidential student information.

 Brown’s surprise elimination of the 37-year-old California Postsecondary Education Commission – the commission only learned of its own demise shortly before Brown announced it publicly – saved the state some $2 million by eliminating about 20 jobs. CPEC was one of dozens of boards and commissions that were eliminated to save money.

But while Brown used his blue pencil to nix the money, he left everything else intact, including 1.7 billion digital records that are now stored on CPEC’s servers.

“What we don’t want to happen is to have the data wiped and erased and lost,” noted Ashley Ceric of the state Department of Education. “Someone should be the caretaker of that data.”

One option: Set up a body called a Joint Powers Authority that would be responsible for the sensitive data. JPAs are not unusual at the local level, but they are rare among state agencies. Last month, educators, state officials and others gathered to discuss the issue. Capitol Weekly reviewed a detailed memorandum of the meeting.

By abolishing CPEC, Brown also eliminated the state’s sole office that coordinates higher education policy – a move that some experts believe may be more significant than the stranded data and may come back to bite the state.

The governor isn’t alone in targeting the commission, which has drawn fire over the years.

There was an earlier, fizzled attempt during former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration, fueled in part by critics who said CPEC’s research was duplicated elsewhere, that CPEC resisted sharing its data with others and that the commission had become an aggressive advocate for funding for higher education.

But the commission, created in 1974 and run by a 16-member appointed board, also served as an independent, outside coordinator – the only one, in fact – of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. That program launched under Brown’s father, Gov. Pat Brown. Presumably, that function now shifts to the Legislature but, as with the data, nobody is really sure.

“I’m agnostic about who will warehouse the data,” said Scott Lay, head of the California Community College League. “But all three segments of higher education recognize that it is important to have an outside body. There needs to be some sort of institution that can play the role CPEC did.”

CEPC’s digital data, assembled since the early 1990s, include a unique relational database bridging the community colleges, the California State University and the University of California. It is considered a gold mine for education researchers.  

“CPEC has the only linked data between the three post-secondary education institutions. For example, you can actually get real transfer rates and identify the students. This type of database has strong privacy requirements. We never publish that data on line but we do use the aggregate results,” said Karen Humphrey, CPEC’s executive director.

Much of the material is available on CPEC’s website, but also there is non-posted, sensitive material, Humphrey said. That data – which has strict privacy rules – can be used to glean information on such things as school-by-school graduation frequencies, classroom and instructor effectiveness, student performance over time, racial and ethnic metrics, diploma percentages, occupational needs and the like.

Individual students or others are not identified, but the aggregate results of research may be made available.

Such information can play a role in the ongoing political debate over education. The data entails long-term tracking across the lower and higher education systems, which is one reason it is viewed as so valuable.

“The political concerns, for example, are whether you can say this person’s classroom doesn’t send anybody on to college, or why a student who didn’t do well in a particular class isn’t going on to college, or whether a transfer rate is racial,” Lay said. “There is a great deal of policy and research interest in having that information,” he added.

But the information belongs with CPEC. “Brown vetoed the money but everything else didn’t change at all. So now we have a problem,” said one Capitol observer familiar with the issue.

But since CPEC is disappearing – the staff will work into the fall to wrap up loose ends – who gets the data? CPEC’s other function, funneling some $8.5 million in teacher-improvement federal grants to colleges and universities, remains undisturbed.

“Now is the opportunity to start over on a clean sheet of paper,” said Steve Boilard, who specializes in higher education at the Legislative Analyst’s Office. “What are the critical functions here? A key one is to provide an objective, unbiased source of data that clearly and transparently explains what’s happening in higher education.”

But it’s not as simple as putting CPEC’s servers in a truck and moving them to another building. First, the data must be secured according to a law known as FERPA, or the Federal Education Privacy Act. Second, a number of entities want the files and, presumably, to control access to them.   

The phrase “fighting over the files” may be overly dramatic, but clearly a number of agencies want to control the records.

The solution that is emerging thus far is a JPA, which reflects a sort of a truce between competing agencies, giving each one a say-so in how CPEC’s data is administered.

JPAs have been set up for local or regional transportation programs, for example, that spread beyond a single jurisdiction, or for some infrastructure projects. JPAs may set policy and approve funding, and they often have their own boards of directors and staffs.

 But a JPA created solely to manage a state computer database is unprecedented, experts say.

During the recess, a JPA was proposed that would include representatives of UC, CSU, the community colleges, the State Department of Education, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the Employment Development Department, the State Board of Education and the California School Information Services.   

The issue of database governance goes far beyond CPEC and the discussion of the JPA is at the heart of the issue.

A bill, SB 885 authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, seeks to set up a JPA to coordinate and link the data collection for so-called “P-20” programs, or pre-school through graduate school and employment. Before it was ordered abolished, CPEC had been one of the agencies that would have participated in the proposed JPA; it has since been amended out.

A 2008 attempt to coordinate data collection by setting up a statewide data governance board was approved in the Senate but rejected in the Assembly, in part because entities were not enthusiastic about sharing their data.

By one count, some 150 separate, major databases had been created. Indeed, over time a major stumbling block to creating a coordinated data system is the resistance of agencies to share their material. The lack of a cohesive data chain already has cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding.

“We’re not talking about creating a database as we are about corralling the data that already exists  in the hands of hundreds, even thousands, of databases and pulling it tog
ether. But then you ask the obvious question, ‘Who’s in charge?’” Simitian said.

“If you try to hand this off to any one of the participating agencies, that’s probably a formula for failure, so ultimately the way you share governance is through a JPA,” he added. “If you’re going to spend $60 billion a year on education in California, you have the obligation to the taxpayers to show that the money is wisely spent.”

In the end, somebody is going to be taking over CPEC’s database.

“We are having conversations with various repositories in terms of their reports and the historical record,” Humphrey noted. “Clearly, we are going to try and find a home for it.”

Contact John Howard at john.howard@capitolweekly.net

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