Changes to student privacy regs could shield 'directory information'

Proposed changes to FERPA are first under Obama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Education proposed new student privacy regulations Thursday, which may have implications for journalists trying to obtain information from schools and colleges.

The department also announced the hiring of a new privacy chief to administer the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

According to a news release, the initiatives are designed to “safeguard student privacy while clarifying that states have the flexibility to share school data that are necessary to judge the effectiveness of government investments in education.”

Under current regulations, the department can pull federal funding from schools and colleges that release private education records. The new proposal would expand the department’s enforcement authority and allow it to pull funding from other entities that have access to student records – including state departments of education and student loan lenders.

Another change concerns so-called “directory information” — basic information such as a student’s name and address — that can be shared without the student’s permission. The department’s proposal would allow schools to limit the release of that information to “specific parties, [or] for specific purposes.”

According to the department’s news release, the change is designed to prevent marketers and criminals from gaining access to the information. However, it’s unclear how far a school could go in picking and choosing who is allowed to obtain the information.

FERPA – also known as the Buckley Amendment – is a federal law enacted in 1974 that gives students and parents access to their personal education records. The law also limits the release of those records to outside parties.

"Data should only be shared with the right people for the right reasons," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the release. "We need common-sense rules that strengthen privacy protections and allow for meaningful uses of data.”

Kathleen Styles, formerly of the U.S. Census Bureau, was hired as the department’s chief privacy officer — a new position charged with overseeing privacy efforts throughout the department. Styles will also head up the Family Policy Compliance Office, which administers FERPA and other federal privacy laws.

The proposals mark the first changes to FERPA regulation during the Obama presidency. Controversial changes in 2008 allowed schools to withhold documents even with all identifying information blacked out, if the school believes the requester knows the identity of the student in the records.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the department acknowledged the overuse of FERPA but did not provide a plausible solution to the policy’s flaws.

“Once again, as it did in 2008, the department has failed to address the fundamental flaw with FERPA -- that it is capable of being used to conceal information that was never genuinely private and in which there is no legitimate privacy interest,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said FERPA needs a complete revamp.

“This proposal gives lip service to the concept of accountability,” he said, “but until FERPA is overhauled to narrow the definition of 'education records' to cover only records that genuinely are private and sensitive, then schools will never be fully accountable.”

The public has until May 23 to comment on the department’s proposed changes before they go into effect. Comments can be submitted on a special government website.

LoMonte said lawmakers must step in to prevent the continued abuse of student privacy in preventing access to information.

“The public and Congress have given the Department several years to recognize, acknowledge and rectify the overbreadth of FERPA, and today the Department has made clear it has no interest in doing so. It's time for Congress to address the abuses that the DOE will not,” LoMonte said.

FERPA, news, Washington D.C.

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