Ray Carter | February 18, 2020
Student privacy concerns raised due to bill’s passage
Legislation imposing new reporting mandates on a school-choice program has passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives even though the legislation does not include specific student-privacy protections that ensure compliance with federal law.
House Bill 1230, by Rep. Mark McBride, would require the Oklahoma State Department of Education to report on its website information related to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program that serves children with special needs, adopted children, and children in foster care.
The legislation requires the department to post online an annual report that includes both the “total number and amount of scholarships awarded and reported for each participating private school” and also “data on participating students, disaggregated by years of participation in the program, grade level, economically disadvantaged status, racial and ethnic groups and disability category.”
“It’s basically a transparency bill on the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship,” McBride, R-Moore, told lawmakers on the House floor.
However, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, bans federal funding to any “educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release” of education records or personally identifiable information “without the written consent of their parents to any individual, agency, or organization.”
The U.S. Department of Education advises, “Under FERPA, a school may not generally disclose personally identifiable information from an eligible student’s education records to a third party unless the eligible student has provided written consent.”
HB 1230’s combination of both school-specific data and student information that includes race/income/disability raises concerns the bill could lead to the public release of information that would allow public identification of individual children attending specific schools.
Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, said most such laws around the country include provisions to protect student privacy, including in situations where reporting might not name a child, but would provide so much detail as to make a child easily identifiable.
“Basic reporting requirements are pretty standard around the country,” Bedrick said. “Obviously, there can be concerns about privacy, so states often do not publicly disclose data about specific schools when there is a small number of participating students, in which case the reporting could identify specific students.”
In other, comparable situations, Oklahoma lawmakers have included specific student-privacy protections.
Under the state Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013, the State Board of Education was required to “develop, publish and make publicly available policies and procedures to comply with the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and other relevant privacy laws and policies.” That state law also required the Department of Education to “use only aggregate data in public reports or in response to record requests,” such as the release of annual district-level reports of student results on state testing.
No comparable language was included in HB 1230.
In Oklahoma and elsewhere, student data has been released publicly, at times in apparent violation of federal law.
In January, the Arizona Department of Education released parent names and individual account information for more than 7,000 students who were beneficiaries of a school-choice program in that state. Department officials said the release was a mistake.
In response, the Goldwater Institute sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona to take action against the Arizona Department of Education for the data release, which Goldwater officials said violated the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
In Oklahoma, a new virtual school was recently able to obtain thousands of students’ names and home addresses. The school’s attorney said the school obtained the addresses through a portion of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s website for school officials.
HB 1230 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 68-17 vote.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.