PHOENIX – On Tuesday, the Arizona Department of Education admitted that it had “inadvertently disclosed some personally identifiable information belonging to Empowerment Scholarship Account holders.” The admission left out the most disturbing aspect of the breach; the Department essentially handed over the data to the very group that hopes to deny special needs kids their scholarship accounts.
The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) breach of Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) families’ information was first discovered by the pricey Yellow Sheet Report, a publication that describes itself as the “best source for AZ political news, notes and gossip.”
Screen shots of the Yellow Sheet Report filled social media feeds by outraged ESA parents and supporters of vouchers and school choice, who have already felt the sting of discrimination and incompetence from the ADE under the leadership of Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
If you screenshot today’s Yellow Sheet Report (like everyone who did yesterday) make sure to at least credit and tag us pic.twitter.com/xCO44jL7Ay
— Yellow Sheet Report (@TheYellowSheet) January 28, 2020
According to the Yellow Sheet:
“The Dept of Education provided a spreadsheet that inadvertently named every parent with an ESA voucher account in the state to a group that widely opposes the ESA program, a likely violation of federal student privacy laws. Our reporter filed a public records request for documents showing the account balance of every ESA account in the state, and, on the surface, the document ADE provided appears to properly redact personally identifiable information. But when our reporter highlighted the document, it became clear it was improperly redacted – copying the entire table into a text reader reveals the redacted portions.”
To make matters worse, the ADE also turned over the information to the very aggressive anti-voucher and anti-school choice group, Save our Schools Arizona.
Steve Smith, the Arizona State Director for the American Federation for Children, who has had to defend families from the anti-voucher Hoffman before, blasted the ADE’s “reprehensible” lapse “in protecting the privacy of these families.”
“This is an absolute betrayal of these families and students,” stated Smith. “Under Superintendent Hoffman, who opposes the ESA program, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has repeatedly made applying for and participating in the program extremely difficult for Arizona families. On behalf of these affected families and students, we call upon the appropriate state and federal authorities to investigate the release of this personal and private information and hold the ADE accountable.”
In an interview on KFYI’s James T. Harris show, Smith, a former Arizona State Senator, said that while serving in the Senate, one of the most common concerns he heard from Arizona parents and educators was with the vulnerability of students’ Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
Steve Smith asks how ESA family information was released to news outlets by Kathy Hoffman. https://t.co/qmFaTUchKL
— James T Harris (@JamesTHarris) January 29, 2020
Rep. Kelly Townsend, a member of the Arizona House Education Committee stated that “the time to be outraged has passed. It is now time to act, and to act swiftly regarding the protection of our ESA families. We are looking at legal recourse, readjustment of responsibilities, oversight, dispute resolution, special audit adjustments and other necessities to get this issue under control. A clear and visible pattern of mismanagement has developed and the Legislature stands ready to address it and is actively moving forward.”
Townsend announced in a tweet that she was “calling on the Maricopa County Attorney to investigate this egregious breach of privacy and hold those responsible accountable.”
— Rep. Kelly Townsend (@KellyTownsend11) January 28, 2020
According to Tuesday’s Yellow Sheet, the Attorney General’s Office is looking into the ADE’s failure to properly redact the data. An spokesperson with the Attorney General’s Office, told the Yellow Sheet that failed redaction “appears to be a violation of federal law, however, we are doing everything we can to determine if our office has independent jurisdiction.”
That federal law is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student education records.