Education Department blunder puts ESA parent names in hands of group that opposes expansion of voucher program

Dillon Rosenblatt//January 27, 2020

Education Department blunder puts ESA parent names in hands of group that opposes expansion of voucher program

Dillon Rosenblatt//January 27, 2020

(Stock Photo/Gunnar 3000)
(Stock Photo/Gunnar 3000)

The Arizona Department of Education likely violated federal student privacy laws when it released a spreadsheet that inadvertently named every parent with an Empowerment Scholarship Account in the state. The spreadsheet then fell into the hands of a group that opposes expansion of the program.

The Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Capitol Times, also obtained the spreadsheet through a public records request for documents showing the account balance of every ESA account in the state, and, on the surface, the documents the department provided appear to properly redact personally identifiable information. But when the Yellow Sheet Report highlighted the document, it became clear it was improperly redacted. Copying the entire table into a text reader reveals the redacted portions. 

The likely explanation is that the department blackened the background in columns containing the names and email addresses of nearly 7,000 parents with ESA accounts, but didn’t re-scan the document to ensure the words didn’t show through. 

Dawn Penich Thacker
Dawn Penich Thacker

Save our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker confirmed that she received the same document, also improperly redacted. 

The document shows parents’ first and last name, email addresses, the grade their student is currently in, and, for students with special needs – the type of disability they have. But that is not explicitly stated, only as an acronym. 

Two school choice advocates, who have been critical of the Department of Education’s handling of the ESA program in the past, weren’t happy when hearing what had happened.

Jason Bedrick, the education policy advisor for Education Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation), said he’s aware of similar situations happening in other states, but the department just did not redact things properly.

“They clearly did not do their due diligence over there,” Bedrick said, adding that it’s “unfortunate.”

Bedrick said that SOS’s possession of the spreadsheet worsens the situation. 

“Here’s an organization that actively campaigns against the ESA program and has repeatedly attempted to undermine the program,” Bedrick said. “Now, every single person who’s participating in the program, their names and information has been revealed to the special interest group that opposes the use of the program.” 

A department spokesman, Richie Taylor, said the document needed to be redacted because giving out that info would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights of Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records. 

“If you knew the parent’s name and how much money they had, then you could know that their kid had a severe disability,” Taylor said. 

The document did not personally identify any children who use ESAs. 

Penich-Thacker, in an email, said neither she nor SOS Arizona put in a records request for this information that she received, which was also significantly less than the media received. 

She said they receive a lot of “unsolicited” information from a “wide network of volunteers.” 

She said the mishap is really unfortunate.

“Everyone deserves their right to privacy, but especially children … we’re certainly not going to delve into or do anything with the info,” she said. 

In a prepared statement the department said recipients were able to “reverse engineer” the document to gain access to redacted data.

“The Department takes student privacy very seriously and any characterization suggesting that the Department furnished unredacted student data would be an actionable misrepresentation,” the statement read. 

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks during a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Ariz. Smith, the Republican chair of Arizona Senate committee considering Gov. Doug Ducey's wide-ranging school safety proposal, vowed Thursday, April 19, 2018, to ensure that whatever plan passes the GOP-controlled Legislature protects gun rights and has support from the National Rifle Association.. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, former Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Steve Smith, the state director for the American Federation for Children, a school-choice group, said this is “unacceptable, outrageous and completely reprehensible.”

“This data has historically been among the most closely guarded in our state government until now,” he said. “The state needs to act to ensure that the program is more competently and effectively managed to give assurance to these families who have been compromised.”

Smith also took great issue in SOS Arizona having access to this information.

“One could imagine how betrayed these vulnerable families must feel, knowing that SOS has their information,” Smith said. 

Bedrick said in general this is a wake up call to the department that all employees need to be properly trained on how to redact personal information. He acknowledged that the department at least made an attempt to redact it. 

He said it’s a major breach of trust for the parents involved and he would expect the Attorney General’s Office to look into the matter to make sure this doesn’t happen again.