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Privacy Advocates Brace for Shakeup at U.S. Education Department

UPDATE: A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department said on Thursday that as of April 1, current Deputy Chief Privacy Officer Angela Arrington will become the department's interim Chief Privacy Officer. In her current capacity, Arrington leads efforts around the administration of FERPA, freedom-of-information requests, and more. She previously worked for 18 years as a computer scientist at the Defense Information System Agency.

UPDATED

The chief privacy officer position at the U.S. Education Department is about to go vacant, sources say, as part of a broader reorganization that could have big implications for how the federal government supports schools and districts in protecting student privacy.

Current Chief Privacy Officer Kathleen Styles "announced at a staff meeting Monday that she was being reassigned, effective April 1, and that there are currently no plans to replace her," according to a source familiar with the announcement.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department declined to confirm the reassignment, saying the department does not comment on personnel matters.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos "has no plans to do away with the position of chief privacy officer," read the statement from spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill. But the statement did not offer any further details about the department's plans for the office of the chief privacy officer moving forward.

At a scheduled appearance Wednesday, the department's director of student privacy policy said the agency's work will roll on, unimpeded.

"The services are not going to change," said Michael Hawes during a panel on K-12 privacy policy at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking in Washington.

Providing Technical Assistance on Privacy

Styles, a lawyer licensed to practice in Texas and the District of Columbia, has filled the department's chief privacy officer role since it was created in 2011.

The office she runs is currently responsible for functions including administering two of the country's major federal student-privacy laws, developing the Education Department's privacy-related policies and guidance, and providing technical assistance to help education entities navigate student-privacy issues.

Under Styles, the office has significantly expanded the scope of the department's Privacy Technical Assistance Center, issuing guidance and best-practices documents on a wide range of privacy-related issues, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA.

That could change as part of an impending apparent shakeup.

Asked about the future of the office's technical-assistance efforts, the department spokeswoman said in a statement that the Family Policy Compliance Office, which is currently part of the office of the chief privacy officer, "will enforce FERPA compliance and provide technical assistance as required by statute."

When an attendee at the CoSN conference session asked what that might mean for the department's work with districts -and vendors-seeking guidance on how to interpret and comply with federal privacy law, Hawes said parents who believe their rights have been violated under the federal privacy law FERPA can continue to file complaints with the department's privacy compliance office.

In addition, he said, his division has not stopped accepting requests for help through the Privacy Technical Assistance Center.

Still, some privacy advocates are worried about the potential implications of any shift, saying it suggests a return to an earlier era when many schools and districts were reluctant to seek out federal help on privacy-related issues.

"Under Kathleen's direction, the department has provided concrete, understandable guidance on a range of [privacy] issues that are applicable to everyday school operations," said Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.

"This clarity has been immeasurably helpful to better understanding and implementing privacy protections for students," Vance said. "It is crucial that this work continue."

Also unclear is what a shakeup might mean for ongoing efforts to update or overhaul FERPA, especially a broader set of 2011 regulations that have proved controversial.

The Trump administration has been engaged in broader efforts it says are aimed to make federal agencies, including the Education Department, more efficient and responsive. Last month, Education Week reported on DeVos's plan to reduce the number of political appointees and to merge or consolidate a number of offices within the Education Department.

For some, such steps are critical to undoing years of perceived federal overreach under former President Barack Obama.

But for many in the privacy-advocacy community, it's a potentially ominous sign.

"This is part of a larger pattern, where the administration is making poorly thought-out shifts to organizational structures, without thinking about the impact on schools and kids," said Bill Fitzgerald, the project director of Project Unicorn, an initiative to support data interoperability in K-12 education. "It's irresponsible to not have an immediate plan to keep data privacy and security a priority within the department."

This post has been updated with comments from U.S. Education Department director of student privacy policy Michael Hawes, made Wednesday at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking.


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