Conservative group accuses Education Dept of invading students’ privacy with new FERPA rules

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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A conservative non-profit is raising privacy concerns over a Department of Education (DoED) rule change that will allow for “personally identifiable information” about students to be shared with other government departments. Personally identifiable information that could potentially be shared includes hair color, blood type, family health history and students’ grades and other academic records.

The DoED rule changes are part of a reinterpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). The proposed changes have conservative group American Principles in Action (APIA) up in arms. APIA says they are a breach of students’ and families’ privacy rights.

The DoED’s changes, which it says are necessary because it needs to “judge the effectiveness of government investments in education,” would allow “personally identifiable information” about individual children collected in public schools to be shared with departments other than the DoED. For instance, the DoED could share information with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the Department of Labor (DOL).

The DoED dismissed the concerns APIA raised about student privacy by hiring a new “Chief Privacy Officer,” opening a new “Privacy Technical Assistance Center,” and issuing new technical briefs and reports on how DoED thinks student privacy rights can be best served. That still isn’t enough to alleviate the APIA’s concerns.

“Data should only be shared with the right people for the right reasons,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “We need common-sense rules that strengthen privacy protections and allow for meaningful uses of data. The initiatives announced today will help us do just that.”

“Under the proposed changes, students and parents would lose their right to prevent disclosure of personal information and, in most cases, would have no way of knowing that a disclosure has even been made,” APIA wrote in its official comment to the DoED in early May. “This result would obliterate parents’ right to protect their children by ensuring that disclosure of their PII [personally identifiable information] is restricted to limited, designated entities for limited, designated purposes. APIA also believes that the goals sought to be achieved by these amendments are not within the authority of the Department to accomplish, but rather lie within the purview of Congress.”

Emmett McGroarty, the executive director of APIA’s Innocence Project, told The Daily Caller he thinks “Congress should make those changes,” if they’re going to be made at all. He’s worried that the DoED’s lack of accountability to the people affected by sweeping decisions is problematic.

“This is a huge leap forward to a kind of managed economy,” McGroarty said. “When you actually step back and look at the 30,000-foot angle of things, what they’re doing is they want to track students from when they enter school through their career, not through [age] 12, not through [age] 16. They want to do it through their careers.”

McGroarty said the DoED will say it’s making these changes, moving towards what he calls a “managed economy,” with the best publicly-stated intentions. But, he worries that bureaucratic officials in Washington won’t understand any potential far-reaching negative effects their decisions may have on generations to come.

“We’re flipping the normal American model on its head [with these rule changes],” McGroarty told TheDC. “The traditional American capitalist democratic idea that each individual is a sovereign and ‘I’m going to shape my life the way I want,’ [would be gone]. Now, it’s big government taking a look back and saying ‘we need this, we need that.’” What McGroarty means is that he expects the DOL and HHS to start telling the DoED to “train” students for certain professions they expect to have workforce needs in the future.