Changes to student privacy regs could shield 'directory information'

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Departmentof Education proposed new student privacy regulations Thursday, which may haveimplications for journalists trying to obtain information from schools andcolleges.

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

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

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

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

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

FERPA – also known as the Buckley Amendment – isa federal law enacted in 1974 that gives students and parents access to their personaleducation records. The law also limits the release of those records to outsideparties.

“Datashould only be shared with the right people for the right reasons,”Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the release. “We needcommon-sense rules that strengthen privacy protections and allow for meaningfuluses of data.”

Kathleen Styles, formerly of the U.S. CensusBureau, was hired as the department’s chief privacy officer — a new positioncharged with overseeing privacy efforts throughout the department. Styles willalso head up the Family Policy Compliance Office, which administers FERPA andother federal privacy laws.

The proposals mark the first changes to FERPAregulation during the Obama presidency. Controversial changes in 2008 allowedschools to withhold documents even with all identifying information blackedout, if the school believes the requester knows the identity of the student inthe records.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center, said the department acknowledged the overuse of FERPA but didnot provide a plausible solution to the policy’s flaws.

“Once again, as it did in 2008, the departmenthas failed to address the fundamental flaw with FERPA — that it is capable ofbeing used to conceal information that was never genuinely private and in whichthere 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, “butuntil FERPA is overhauled to narrow the definition of ‘education records’ tocover only records that genuinely are private and sensitive, then schools willnever be fully accountable.”

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

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

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