Researcher Access to Education Records is Still School’s Choice

In mid-January, President Barack Obama signed into law the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which amends the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act  to grant child welfare workers direct access to the education records of children in state or county care.

The law’s originally proposed language would have given greater access to research organizations too, but the final bill did not include that change. On a press call after President Obama signed the act, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) expressed frustration that access for researchers had to be removed to move the bill quickly.

“We fought hard for that, but we ran into a brick wall,” Landrieu said of the research exception. “The only promise we got was it would be considered when FERPA reauthorization” came up.

Landrieu suggested on the call that Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was the principal objector, but it appears that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was the one with serious reservations.

“Sen. Alexander expressed concerns about the proposed changes because it was being rushed through, and there was not time to fully ensure that the rights and need for privacy of children in foster care were being protected,“ said Jim Jeffries, Alexander’s spokesman. “The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act shouldn’t be viewed as an inconvenience to researchers, but instead a bulwark against unnecessary government intrusion into the private lives of children and their families.”

The comment suggests that access for researchers, under the right safeguards, might get Alexander’s support in a broader reauthorization of FERPA. At the same time, there is no real indication that FERPA will be taken up again.

“It was disappointing to hear that that part didn’t get included in what was signed,” said Cheryl Smithgall, a research fellow at Chapin Hall, a policy research organization at the University of Chicago.

Education records are essential in gauging the advancement of foster children at certain developmental times in their lives, she said.

“Recent research suggests there might be critical periods for reading and for math; we see some kids who can experience disruption and get back on track, but maybe don’t recover the same with math,” said Smithgall. “If we don’t have complete information, then it’s hard for us to help inform when those critical points might be.”

The need for data sharing is more intense now because in many places, budget cuts have constrained the time and staff that child welfare agencies can allocate to research.

“Everything we do is research based, and it’s exceedingly difficult now to get agencies to participate in research projects,” said Priscilla Martens, executive director of the National Family Preservation Network, which works with agencies to implement an assessment tool to inform and measure family preservation services. “They have no money available to cover costs, and it creates extra work for them.”

Much of this debate comes down to the personally identifiable information (Names, identification numbers, addresses, etc) about children that is attached to school records. So why do the researchers need personal information? Why not have schools just delete/redact the personal stuff and move faceless data over to researchers?

Not that easy, Smithgall said. To incorporate education records into a study on youth in the child welfare system, one would need to match up the child welfare records with the education records, and verify that the records are indeed for the same youth.

Chapin Hall uses a probabilistic technique that involves name, date of birth, address and Medicaid number. If the probability of the records being for the same youth is 90 percent or higher, the information is included.

“I’d rather not do the research than do the research with bad data,” said Smithgall.

The Department of Education opened the door last year for increased use of education records by researchers. The new rules, issued in December 2011, “clarify that FERPA-permitted entities are not prevented from redisclosing [personally identifiable information] from education records as part of agreements with researchers to conduct studies for, or on behalf of, educational agencies and institutions.”

So the current lay of the land is that a state or local school district could share records for research, but law does not require them to do so.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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