Greg Forster, Ph.D. | February 7, 2020

Seemingly harmless choice regulations compromise families’ privacy

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

If you don’t want to hear me say “I told you so,” just close this tab now. A few months ago, in an article headlined “Don’t overregulate choice,” I warned that proposals circulating in Oklahoma to require choice schools to give the state reams of sensitive personal data on participating families were, among other things, a huge privacy risk. Now, in another state, the government school monopoly has provided Oklahoma with an object lesson. It handed over private, personal data on families in one of its choice programs to a lobbying group that opposes choice. 

The breach came in Arizona. The private data came from the state’s education savings account (ESA) program, which allows parents to use funds allotted for their children’s education to pay for the schooling of their choice. The Arizona Department of Education handed over a spreadsheet containing private data on participating families to Save Our Schools Arizona, a group that wants to shut down choice programs and restore the government’s monopoly on education.

“The more private, personal data the state collects—or requires schools to collect and send it—the less privacy we all have.” —Greg Forster

The sheet gave the names and email addresses of more than 7,000 parents, the grades their children are in, and the children’s disabilities (if any). As the parent of a special-needs student, I’m not interested in hearing from anybody that this was not a grave violation of the privacy of these families. And we’ll be lucky if ideological fanatics, whipped up by the monopoly system’s generations of irresponsible rhetoric demonizing school choice, don’t use this information to target the families for harassment—or worse.

An arm of the Arizona Capitol Times obtained the spreadsheet through an open records request and confirmed with Save Our Schools Arizona that they had received the same spreadsheet. While the private data had been superficially covered, mandatory steps to prevent the process from being reversed—revealing the data—had not been taken. The Arizona Capitol Times found it easy to produce all the private data from the file that had been sent to Save Our Schools.

In case you’re wondering, this is a grave violation of a federal law that protects students’ privacy rights. Enforcement of this law is supposed to be especially strict, in light of the sensitivity of the information, the compulsory nature of schooling, and the fact that the people to be protected are minors.

I will never forget how seriously the U.S. Department of Education impressed this upon me back when I got my federal license to handle confidential student data. As a researcher, I was entrusted with databases containing sensitive student information, so I could perform statistical analyses. The procedures to which I was subjected in order to obtain the license left me feeling a bit like Indiana Jones walking across that booby-trapped floor with the letters on it—it was made abundantly clear to me that I’d better not take a single wrong step.

We’ll see whether the rules are enforced with that kind of vigor against the powerful rulers of the government school monopoly. Even under a choice-friendly federal administration, I’m not holding my breath. Governments are never as shocked as they should be by the abuse of government power.

However, Oklahoma is not obligated to wait for the arousal of a slumbering federal law enforcement to take the hint Arizona is giving it. The more private, personal data the state collects—or requires schools to collect and send it—the less privacy we all have. While the data that were illegally released in Arizona might be data that we can’t prevent the government from having if a choice program is going to exist, the lesson for Oklahoma is that there’s more danger in handing over more data.

I’m all for transparency and accountability in education—transparency and accountability of schools, that is, not of families. Schools should be accountable to the families they serve, which is the point of school choice. And when parents are put in charge, schools consistently show themselves willing to make lots of data about themselves available to parents.

Recently, I was driven to the airport by an Uber driver who came to this country from Russia. Americans, he told me, don’t appreciate what freedom really means. In Russia, if a police officer stops you, the officer can demand to see your identification, and demand that you justify whatever you’re doing. In America, if a police officer stops you, it’s you who has a right to demand to see the police officer’s identification, and it’s the police who are required to be able to justify whatever they do to you.

Schools exist to serve families. Families don’t exist to serve schools. We’re the ones who have a right to demand more data from them, not the other way around.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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