Court to determine if public school district must give private school advocate student names and addresses

From Court News Ohio A non-profit group that informs students in “low-rated” public schools about the state’s Educational Choice Scholarship claims Springfield City Schools are improperly using a federal privacy law to block the group fom getting the childrens' names and addresses. The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week to determine if Springfield’s change in policy violates the state’s public records act.

School Choice Ohio, Inc. (SCO) attempts to inform parents and students about the 14,000 scholarships the state now provides to students attending or entering “low-rated” schools as designated by the Ohio Department of Education. To reach those eligible, SCO makes public records requests for names and addresses from districts with scholarship-eligible students. In School Choice Ohio, Inc. v. Springfield City School District, it states Springfield as well as other districts routinely provided the group the basic information. However, when Springfield adopted a new policy in 2013 citing the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) as preventing it from releasing the data, SCO came directly to the Supreme Court to seek an order forcing the district to provide it. The statewide organizations representing public school board members and administrators have asked the Court to back Springfield’s policy, claiming this is an important case to uphold the discretion of all local school boards.

SCO asks for information that qualifies as “directory information” under FERPA and can be released by a school district without parental consent, unless a parent has specifically requested a school district not release it. FERPA, in general, prohibits education records and “personally-identifiable information” about students from being released to anyone other than students and their parents. However, it gives districts the options of designating and releasing certain information that the federal government deems not harmful, such as names, addresses, participation in activities and sports, achievements, honors, and dates of graduation. That data can be distributed if the district provides notice to parents that it intends to make it public and gives parents time to opt out if they don’t want the information released.

In January 2013, Springfield denied SCO’s directory information request for students in seven schools on the state low-rated list, saying it passed a policy stopping the collection of “directory information.” Instead the consent notice to parents was replaced with a new consent form that collected essentially the same information, but only allows for the release of the data if the parents actually signed a form, and then, the district would share the information only for purposes approved by the superintendent.

SCO counters that under the state public records law, R.C. 149.43, if Springfield collected names and addresses, it had to make them public regardless of whether the data was labeled directory information. The group argues that the district at least has to provide the information for students whose parents signed the form permitting the information to be released.