AERA Comments on California Restrictions on Researchers Who Use State Education Data
AERA Comments on California Restrictions on Researchers Who Use State Education Data

August 2023

In recent media coverage, AERA has commented on efforts by the California Department of Education (CDE) to prevent researchers who sign education data–sharing agreements with the state from testifying in a legal case against it.

Citing the agreement that scholars must sign to access state education data, the department in July sent letters to prominent scholars Thomas Dee and Sean Reardon, both at Stanford University, threatening to terminate their data access and fine them up to $50,000 if they testified for the plaintiffs in Cayla J. v. California. The lawsuit asserts the state’s response to the pandemic had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income students.

Researchers who want to access CDE data agree to privacy protections but also must agree not to “testify, advise, or consult” for anyone other than the state without prior approval.

AERA knows of no other state that restricts research scientists from testifying as experts in court proceedings, or of any federal policy or actions to limit researchers from serving as experts or using their expertise based on federal data assets.

In a statement provided to Inside Higher Ed, AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine said, “Seeing this surface in California seems inconsistent with science serving to advance sound public policies based on evidence that needs to be bedrock in an open, democratic society. Any effort to suppress science and scholarship absent meeting a very high bar of protecting human life and national security requires our vigilance and collective concern.”

In an interview with Education Week, Levine added, “I am broadly troubled about memoranda of understanding that limit how one can report on the findings and results, that aren’t issues related to protection of information when one has access to administrative records and data. These agreements need to be drafted very judiciously in a way that allows for advancing findings, particularly now in this era of evidence-based policy.”

At a time when the use of longitudinal student and school data in education research has become widespread, provisions such CDE’s could have a chilling effect on scholarship.

AERA President Tyrone C. Howard told Ed Source that if the state held fast to its stipulations, “you’re going to see a lot of researchers who will think twice before they engage in important work that helps the state, helps the students across the state of California.”

Following growing media coverage of the issue, CDE issued a letter stating that the provisions against testifying had been removed from Dee (Reardon declined to testify after receiving the CDE’s warning letter). Education Week reported that “the department notified all researchers with similar data agreements that they will be allowed to testify against the department—but only using publicly available data.”

AERA will continue to closely monitor this situation.

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