Student Privacy 101: What is FERPA and why does it matter?

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By WPF Executive Director Pam Dixon

This article is the first in a series on education privacy 

President Obama has announced that the White House will propose legislation for educational privacy reform. The administration needs to start with the basics and get FERPA right once and for all, because currently, FERPA is not doing the job it was intended to do. Educational reform will be fairly meaningless unless the privacy loopholes in FERPA are closed.

What is FERPA? FERPA is the acronym for The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is an important law originally intended to protect student and parent privacy. It is the cornerstone of education privacy, and knowing its key provisions it is a must in order to understand current educational privacy rights for students and parents.

The FERPA law as written is very simple. The Department of Education has the authority to write the detailed rules on how FERPA is implemented, and that is where the specific privacy provisions get put in place. These detailed regulations are updated from time to time, the most recent being 2011. Unfortunately, the recent rules undercut many previous privacy protections. To achieve privacy protections for students and parents, FERPA needs to be recrafted from root to branch. Yes, bring in the educational technology. But keep the privacy, too. It’s not too late to do this by recasting FERPA, but the time for action is now.

If you are unfamiliar with FERPA, here are the basics to get you started:

What: FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

When: Originally passed in 1974, updated most recently in 2011. Here is the a legislative history of FERPA.

Key Privacy Rights under FERPA:

  • A key right under FERPA is the right to opt out of school directory information sharing. Parents and adults are responsible for opting out of directory information sharing, which covers an extensive amount of information. We have a backgrounder about directory information here. We have a consumer tip sheet about how to opt out here.
  • Another set of rights concerns health treatment in the school setting. This is a complex area. We have a discussion of FERPA and health privacy in our Patient’s Guide to HIPAA.

General Overview of FERPAQuick Guide to FERPA from the Department of Education

For the Full FERPA Rule: Federal Register printing of FERPA Regulation, Final Rule 2011 (34 CFR Part 99) with narrative response to comments, including privacy-focused comments.

How to opt out of Directory Information Sharing: WPF’s FERPA Opt Out Guide for parents and students


Related Documents:

Student Privacy 101: Why school directory information sharing is a major edu privacy issue

More from the Student Privacy 101 Series

Consumer Tips: How one single school opt out can greatly improve your kids’ privacy 

WPF Top Ten Opt Outs

WPF 2011 FERPA Regulatory comments

WPF 2008 FERPA Regulatory comments