Arizona Department of Education Improperly Releases Private Information of Almost 7,000 Parents with Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

January 28, 2020

The Goldwater Institute was shocked to learn yesterday of a massive breach of privacy by the Arizona Department of Education, which released private personal information relating to almost 7,000 parents who participate in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program. The data breach is just the latest in a series of episodes revealing massive mismanagement by the state’s educational bureaucracy.

The revelation Monday in the Yellow Sheet Report that the Department provided a spreadsheet that included the account balances of every ESA account in the state, along with the names, email addresses, and other personal information of the almost 7,000 parents with ESA accounts, came as a shock, said Matt Beienburg, the Goldwater Institute’s Director of Education Policy. “This is private information that the Department has a legal and ethical obligation to keep private,” said Beienburg. “Instead, it not only divulged that information, but put it directly in the hands of anti-school choice groups dedicated to undermining the ESA program and the families participating in it.” Save Our Schools Arizona, a vocal anti-educational choice group, confirmed Monday that it had received the spreadsheet.

“Even more shockingly, the families affected by this privacy breach weren’t informed by the Department that their personal information had been revealed,” said Beienburg. “They were forced to learn about it from news reports and weren’t notified directly by the Department until the next day that the violation had occurred.” And even then, the Department failed to mention that that their ESA account balances were revealed.

Timothy Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute’s Vice President for Litigation, agreed with Beienburg. “For these families, it’s bad enough to have their private information revealed, but to find out about it through the news? It shows a lack of concern on the state Education Department’s part, but unfortunately, that’s completely consistent with the way the Department has been mishandling the administration of the ESA program.”

As the Yellow Sheet Report indicated in its report, the revelation of this information is “a likely violation of student privacy laws.” But it is also yet another indication that the poor administration of the state’s ESA program is hurting the families it’s supposed to help. Just weeks ago, the Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education over its handling of the ESA program, as the Education Department’s arbitrary and confusing administration of the program has been keeping many ESA families from receiving the funding to which they’re entitled. As a result, these ESA families—many of them with special needs students—were forced to delay or even abandon educational opportunities that were helping their children learn.

Kayla Svedin is one of the ESA parents whose personal information was revealed. “The Arizona Department of Education never let us know of this breach of privacy they are responsible for,” said Svedin, who is also a plaintiff in Goldwater’s lawsuit against the Department. “Not only was our private and federally protected information revealed, but it was simply handed over to those who oppose this program—a program that has been such a positive game-changer for my children.”

Other ESA parents are echoing Svedin’s sentiments:

  • Trish Stevens has a daughter with a rare genetic condition, and this year, Stevens began using an ESA for the young girl’s education, and she said that the program has “altered [her daughter’s] life for the better.” The Department of Education’s release of personal, confidential information about her family is “deeply disturbing.” Stevens said. “My daughter’s condition is rare, and we do everything we can to keep her and her rare condition off social media. This breach represents more than just our ESA account amount, but her age and disability are now out there,” she continued. “[The Department of Education] is at fault for not taking simple procedures to safeguard our safety. Their action is inexcusable.”
  • Chauncey Hallford, also a plaintiff in Goldwater’s lawsuit against the state Department of Education, said she feels “violated” and “betrayed” about the release of her family’s information. “I had to find out on Facebook from other sources a day before even being notified by [the Department of Education],” she said. And now, with the news that Save Our Schools also received the spreadsheet from the Department, she continued, “the very group who is constantly attacking the program my children receive an education through…has all our personal information and information about my children.”
  • Prisca Walton, another plaintiff in the Goldwater lawsuit, agreed with the sentiments of the other parents regarding the breach of their privacy: “This is unacceptable and typical of [the Department of Education’s] mishandling of the program.”
  • For Piper Searfoss, the release of her family’s personal information has been extremely stressful. Few people know of her children’s special needs conditions, but now that information is out there for others to read against her will. “I am horrified that my children’s diagnoses are floating around. I have only shared this with close family and with people who have direct tutoring or therapy access to them,” Searfoss said. This violation of her family’s privacy “is causing me a lot of stress that I have to try and hide from my children because of their own fears.”

“This privacy breach is part of a very unfortunate pattern with the handling of Arizona’s ESA program—a pattern that makes it difficult or even impossible to use the program to get kids the education they need and deserve,” Sandefur said. “The state Department of Education should be held accountable for its ongoing ESA program mismanagement—the future of thousands of Arizona kids is at stake.”

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