Education Department release unwittingly reveals student data

The Arizona Department of Education thought it had redacted the personal information of 7,000 parents and students in its Empowerment Scholarship Account program, but the records were not completely erased. (Photo by Yuri Samoilov/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – The Arizona Department of Education has asked a Phoenix reporter to destroy records it sent him that later revealed parent names and account information of more than 7,000 students in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

But the department is not challenging an Arizona Capitol Times report, based on that data, that show some of the taxpayer-funded accounts have balances of nearly $100,000 – a number that has raised eyebrows among critics of the program.

Capitol Times reporter Dillon Rosenblatt said a tip about the potentially high account balances led him to file a public records request with the department, which sent him an electronic spreadsheet with students’ personal data redacted.

But Rosenblatt said in an interview Tuesday with KJZZ that when an editor at The Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication, pasted the redacted document into a new spreadsheet “every single thing that was redacted revealed itself.”

The Yellow Sheet said the Education Department likely “blackened the background in columns containing the names and email address of nearly 7,000 parents with ESA accounts, but didn’t re-scan the document to ensure the words didn’t show through.”

The insufficiently redacted spreadsheet included parents’ names and emails and the grade level of students, along with an acronym that appeared to identify the type of disability of special-needs students.

The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts divert money from state schools to parents who can use it for private or home schooling for under certain circumstances for qualifying children.

In a statement Tuesday, the department acknowledged that it “inadvertently disclosed some personally identifiable information belonging to Empower Scholarship Account holders.” It said it has notified all account holders of the problem and contacted the U.S. Department of Education to determine if the breach violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday that the department is aware of the breach and taking it very seriously while its Student Privacy Policy Office is working with the state department to review the matter.

Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that works on consumer privacy issues, did not draw any conclusions but said the data breach might have run afoul of FERPA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She said the incident is a “good illustration” as to why states should invest in training on student privacy.

“Many of us know in this day and age that it can be very easy to select information and figure out what text is behind a block of black,” she said.

Vance added that the greater issue is the loss of trust in the department by parents, who now might not apply for ESA funding they need.

The Goldwater Institute had already filed an unrelated suit against the state Education Department on behalf of ESA families who “suffered from the department’s mishandling.” News of the information breach is “deeply concerning and troubling,” said Matt Beienburg, Goldwater’s director of education policy, who said the institute has reached out to ESA parents over the incident.

Even had the data been properly redacted, however, the records would still have shown that nine of the taxpayer-funded accounts have balances of nearly $100,000.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save our Schools Arizona, who called the breach an “unfortunate mistake that happens more and more in the digital age” questioned why individual account balances have grown so large. She said SOS, a nonpartisan organization that fights for strong public schools, received the same data but did not study the private information and does not plan to look at it.

“We are interested in learning more about why so many individual accounts have upwards of $130,000 sitting in them, since these are tax dollars intended for educating children,” Penich-Thacker said in an email.

Jason Bedrick, director of policy for Education Choice, was quick to defend the balances, saying that some students have multiple disabilities which is why they need more money.

“We don’t know their particular stories, how they’re spending the money, what they’re using it for or what their personal circumstances are,” Bedrick said, adding that the families only “get a portion of what the public schools would’ve spent on their child from the state revenue.”

Bedrick called criticisms of the account balances a “disgusting attack on children.”