We hear a lot of conversation around FERPA and the need to update the law but there is another law that protects student privacy that has a different purpose, yet is no less important. That law is PPRA, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment. Both laws are important in that they provide protections for student privacy but they are different.
FERPA protects student educational records and ensures parental access to these records. It allows for a system enabling parents (or students) to correct inaccuracies in their records. FERPA also provides guidelines for who has access to these records and gives students the means to opt out of directory information (name, address, school clubs, etc.) that may be disclosed without consent unless a parent opts out of this disclosure.
But PPRA is completely different. PPRA’s purpose is to allow parents to limit the kind of personal information that a school may collect from students. For example, this information can be collected as part of surveys, physical examinations, or certain evaluations. The law requires that schools obtain written consent from parents when students are required to participate in any U.S. Department of Education funded survey, analysis, or evaluation. A simple way to understand the difference between FERPA and PPRA is that FERPA protects information the school already has on record and PPRA protects information that schools do not have but can collect for surveys.
It is worthwhile to clarify that the law applies to U.S. Dept of Ed funded surveys. Not all surveys that come home are necessarily funded by the USDOE. However, in 2001 NCLB expanded PPRA to include all applicable surveys in public schools, not just those funded by U.S. Dept of Ed funds in 8 protected categories:
- political affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent;
- mental or psychological problems of the student or the student’s family;
- sex behavior or attitudes;
- illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior;
- critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships;
- legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
- religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or student’s parent; or,
- income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).
In other words –
For surveys that contain questions from one or more of the eight protected areas that are not funded in whole or in part with Department funds, LEAs must notify a parent at least annually, at the beginning of the school year, of the specific or approximate date(s) of the survey and provide the parent with an opportunity to opt his or her child out of participating. LEAs must also notify parents that they have the right to review, upon request, any instructional materials used in connection with any survey that concerns one or more of the eight protected areas and those used as part of the educational curriculum.
So while PPRA doesn’t cover all surveys it does cover surveys that collect information considered “intrusive”. What I also learned is that it appears that in these cases, the surveys require prior parental consent otherwise the school cannot collect information from that student. And this is truly an opt-in option as opposed to an opt-out one. And worth noting that PPRA also has some other key requirements, besides surveys that have received little attention. Such as requiring that all instructional material (besides tests) be available to parents for review and (c)(1)(E) requires that every school have a local policy concerning “the collection, disclosure, or use of personal information collected from students for the purpose of marketing or for selling that information (or otherwise providing that information to others for that purpose), including arrangements to protect student privacy that are provided by the agency in the event of such collection, disclosure, or use.”
While our first reaction is to opt out our children from any school survey we need to think about what we are opting out from. It is important to recognize that some of these surveys could provide valuable feedback to schools – are the right kids getting support, lunch assistance, or are our children being discriminated against because of their race or gender? These surveys could yield important information so that schools get adequate funding or professional assistance to address deficiencies that are identified. Of course, not all surveys’ goal is to identify this. Others could be just aimed at marketing or addressing issues that we are not comfortable providing our children’s information for. The process must be clear, the mechanism for opting out clear and easy in the event parents feel uncomfortable. Parents must know what the survey is for, who is conducting it, how it is funded, how their child’s privacy will be protected. If we can trust the information we are given regarding the survey we can trust that if we decide to provide this information it will be used for the benefit of our children, and that is important.
I am a big advocate of having data and using it purposely. There is value in information. But parents must be given the information needed so that we can make informed decisions and be comfortable when providing details, sometimes extremely personal details, about our children.