Letter to US Sen Durbin about Vista Equity and its ed tech holdings

Illinois Families for Public Schools and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy sent a letter to US Senator Dick Durbin on Thursday in response to recent reporting in the Big Tech watchdog publication The Markup about the implications for student data privacy of ed tech companies with products including Powerschool and Naviance that a private equity firm, Vista Equity, has recently been buying up:

This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America’s Children (1.11.2022)

College Prep Software Naviance Is Selling Advertising Access to Millions of Students (1.13.2022)

In spite of IL's strong state law, the Student Online Personal Protection Act, which requires schools to list publicly what data elements of students personally-identifiable information are being shared with ed tech companies and strictly prohibits targeted advertising, The Markup had great difficulty finding what information is being shared via Naviance and Powerschool, and, moreover, found that Naviance is making extensive use of targeted advertising which has been outlawed under the SOPPA statute since 2017. Illinois' second largest school district Elgin U-46 was the only district to respond to The Markup's records request; the results of that request showed that Powerschool has a data library with more than 7000 data fields on U-46 staff and students.

Full text of letter below.

The Honorable Richard Durbin
United States Senator for Illinois
711 Hart Senate Building   
Washington DC 20510


January 20, 2022

Dear Senator Durbin:

We are writing to you today with questions about Vista Equity who owns several education software companies including Naviance, PowerSchool, EAB, Intersect, KickBoard, Ellucian, and Hoonuit/Unified Insights. A recent media investigation shows vast amounts of student data are being profiled and marketed by these spedific ed tech companies that operate in our state, collecting sensitive data on millions of children, assigning “predictions” about their college success as early as first grade based on race and income, selling access to targeted advertisers, and raising concerns about data abuse and racial discrimination.  These ed tech platforms are often compulsory; yet, it is difficult if not impossible for parents to see the data collected and shared about their children, even after asking their districts for a copy, as the companies claim they are “proprietary.”

As reported last week in The Markup, a non-profit tech industry watchdog: 

“Vista Equity Partners is a private equity firm that has built an educational software empire that wields unseen influence over the educational journeys of tens of millions of children. Along the way, The Markup found, the companies the firm controls have scooped up a massive amount of very personal data on kids, which they use to fuel a suite of predictive analytics products that push the boundaries of technology’s role in education and, in some cases, raise discrimination concerns.” 

“The Markup found that the companies, collectively, gather everything from basic demographic information—entered automatically when a student enrolls in school—to data about students’ citizenship status, religious affiliation, school disciplinary records, medical diagnoses, what speed they read and type at, the full text of answers they give on tests, the pictures they draw for assignments, whether they live in a two-parent household, whether they’ve used drugs, been the victim of a crime, or expressed interest in LGBTQ+ groups, among hundreds of other data points.”

Illinois’ second largest school district, Elgin U-46, provided The Markup with a library of 7000 data fields that PowerSchool collects on U-46 students, families and staff. PowerSchool alone claims to hold the data of over 45 million children, while more than 10 million students use Naviance. IL’s second largest school district, Elgin U-46, provided the Markup with a list of data that PowerSchool warehouses, and PowerSchool has almost 7,000 data fields on U-46 students, families and staff. Often, students are auto-enrolled into these platforms and are required to use these software. According to this follow-up article by The Markup, the data has been used to discriminate against students by race: 

“The [Naviance] platform allows admissions officials to select what kinds of students will see their recruiting messages based on the students’ location, academic “ability,” the majors they’re interested in, and even their race. In one instance, The Markup found a university that deliberately advertised only to White students through Naviance. Several other schools used the platform to target students of all races in some states but only White students in others.  The software has become ubiquitous in the college search process. …students use [Naviance] to submit their college applications, request teacher recommendations, and submit transcripts. They research colleges and universities using Naviance’s SuperMatch feature, which calculates a “fit score” designed to show students how well aligned they are with a particular school. They use the software’s scattergram feature to compare their test scores and GPAs to previously admitted students from their own high school. And they receive messages through Naviance about schools that might be good matches for them. Some of those messages, The Markup found, are actually paid advertisements from the schools. “There’s some social engineering at play that feels really concerning,” said Ceceilia Parnther, a St. John’s University professor who studies higher education leadership. “I see it being an electronic form of gatekeeping.” 

Parents and schools in Illinois, Colorado, Texas, and Maryland have been unsuccessful in their requests to see their children’s Naviance and PowerSchool data, how the data are used, and shared, or sold.  We respectfully request that you take whatever actions are in your power to compel Vista Equity and its education companies mentioned in this Markup investigation to comply with existing federal and state law, including FERPA, COPPA, PPRA and Illinois’ Student Online Personal Protection Act (SOPPA), not to sell student data, not to use it for commercial purposes including for targeted ads, to alert parents before the surveys are administered, to provide them with the questions and require their consent before their children are asked to complete them, while explaining exactly how the data will be used. Illinois’s SOPPA is one of the strongest student data privacy laws in the country, and it clearly prohibits selling student data and presenting students with targeted ads via ed tech software. 

We urge you to write to Vista Equity companies and demand they supply the following information:

  • all data points collected, and their educational purpose

  • all third parties who have access to student data and data analytics generated by Vista Equity companies or its partners

  • all parties who have purchased ads targeting their student, as well as description of their targeting 

  • all groups, labels, categories, or lists their student has been sorted or assigned (e.g. white high school juniors with average scores)

Moreover, schools should be creating student accounts and sharing data with Vista Equity companies only with parental informed consent. Parents who do not grant consent should be provided with reasonable alternatives in order to receive educational services like college and career counseling. 

Additionally, we ask that you support non-preemptive federal legislation to prohibit the sale or use of student data for advertising or other commercial purposes, require transparency and minimum efficacy standards of algorithms used in education, bar the  collection and sharing of sensitive information without prior informed parent consent, and contain strong enforceable penalties with a private right of action. 


Thank you,

Cassie Creswell, co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and director,  Illinois Families for Public Schools
Leonie Haimson, co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and director, Class Size Matters