CONTROVERSY hit the state Education Department again last week, but not for quite the reason we might have expected.
The state Board of Education met in special session to consider whether a handful of students should be awarded a high school diploma even though they hadn't passed tests required under the 2005 Achieving Classroom Excellence law. The potential for drama existed, but no students appeared individually before the board to plead their case. The board heard comments from two school officials and then considered documents presented as part of the student appeals. Their debate was in executive session.
The drama came after the meeting when the department decided to post the appeals documents on its website. The information included students' names, test score data, letters from students and their parents, and whether the students have disabilities. The backlash was almost immediate.
Even though state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi defended the practice through a spokesman, saying students or their parents had signed away privacy rights as part of the appeal process, state board members apparently weren't thrilled. By week's end, spokesman Damon Gardenhire said the practice would change based on the board's wishes.
We understand the hesitance of state board members. The Family Educational Records and Privacy Act (FERPA) is serious business and designed to protect students. As state board members, protecting those students is a top priority and it should be. Even the state's most-quoted advocate of open records said FERPA trumps the state's open records law and the information shouldn't be released in a way that identifies students.
It's hard not to question the sincerity of school officials who cry foul at every turn and were more than happy to share students' stories when it suited their purposes. But their sincerity isn't the issue here.
It's equally hard to understand why state education officials didn't take greater care to make clear the ways in which they would use a FERPA waiver to share student information. We'll leave to lawyers the matter of whether students even need a FERPA waiver to have their appeal heard by the state board.
Letting board members work through (with some much-needed savvy legal advice) what information should and shouldn't be included in the public domain isn't a bad way to approach the issue. In their frustration, we encourage them to hold fast to their duty to protect student privacy without pulling too far toward secrecy.
Sometimes policy seems to have no basis in reality. Even when it does, the public often doesn't have enough information to connect policy to real life. But allowing the public, including policymakers, to see how real-life graduation requirements affect real students makes that connection in a way people can understand. Stories of individual students presented in the media and through school officials clearly made an impact on board members.
With enough information, people can decide for themselves whether the requirements and the new appeals process are the right policy for Oklahoma and its students. We want and need that kind of thinking in our state in places outside the Capitol.
Perhaps the solution is just using student initials. Or maybe assigning them a random number. Members of the state Board of Education have proved themselves to be a thoughtful, deliberative body. We believe they can reach a legally and ethically acceptable compromise that balances the need for student privacy with the benefits of providing as much information as possible to the public.