Department of Education secretary says agency is happy to assist reporters when schools mistakenly cite FERPA

Earlier today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan took questions from journalists on a conference call organized by the Education Writers Association. I took the opportunity to ask him about a problem I encounter frequently, and one we know other journalists do as well — the overly broad application of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

For about a year now, SPLC has tracked how school districts and colleges use FERPA when they’re denying reporters and the public access to public records on our FERPA Fact blog. FERPA has been used to restrict access to everything from the names of students found responsible for sexual assault, to names of student senate members, to arrest reports, to swim-meet scores — even one case where an Oregon high school was left off the U.S. News and World Report‘s “top schools” list because so many students passed state math and reading tests that their scores weren’t recorded, lest they potentially identify students who didn’t pass.

Given this disturbing trend, I asked whether the Department of Education had plans to issue any sort of guidance to schools to help stem the misapplication of FERPA. Here’s what Secretary Duncan said:

“We always try to do our best to provide very clear guidance and try and strike that balance between absolutely maintaining privacy, but also as much as we can, absolute transparency. Where districts or schools are — I’m not saying they are — but if they’re sort of hiding behind FERPA and not sharing simple information, we’re happy to try and assist there.”

Secretary Duncan encouraged me to follow up with staff at the Department of Education about this issue, and I plan to. He encouraged any journalist who’s faced with a dubious claim of FERPA confidentiality to bring the problem to the attention of DOE’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, who’s reachable at