Congress quietly liberalizes FERPA information access to benefit foster children

Unnoticed amid the nationwide will-they-or-won’t-they fixation with the “fiscal cliff,” Congress quietly sent President Obama a revision to the federal student privacy law that broadens access to student records for social workers.

The Uninterrupted Scholars Act (S. 3472) by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., loosens the secrecy constraints of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) so that students’ confidential records can safely be shared with social-service caseworkers with state or local child-welfare agencies, for the purpose of “addressing the student’s education needs.”

The bill also amends FERPA so that schools may disclose records for use in court proceedings on child abuse, neglect or dependency without first needing to notify a parent, if the parent is a party to the court case.

According to proponents, the bill — which passed the House on a voice vote during its unusual Jan. 1 session — eliminates a needless bureaucratic roadblock that was hampering caseworkers assigned to foster children, who are especially prone to switch schools frequently.

Caseworkers are obligated to keep track of school attendance and progress for the children to whom they are assigned. But schools were refusing to provide that information for fear of running afoul of FERPA, which carries theoretically crushing (though never actually imposed) financial penalties for schools that fail to protect the privacy of education records.

FERPA has become a four-letter word to education reporters, who are accustomed to hearing “that’s a confidential education record” — often without a good-faith legal basis — as the knee-jerk reply to every request for public records.

While nothing in S. 3472 improves the ability of journalists to gain access to documents misclassified as confidential FERPA records, the swift and near-unopposed enactment of the bill demonstrates that Congress can be made to understand and take action when FERPA secrecy becomes an impediment to students’ well-being. As, far too often, is proving to be the case.