Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Access to School Records Data

06/01/2002

A major impediment to using educational data to estimate the well-being of children is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). First enacted in 1974, FERPA gives parents the right to inspect and review their children's education records, request amendment of the records, and have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. At age 18, this right is transferred to the student. The act also restricts the release of school records or information from those records that could identify the student. Before releasing such records or information to a party outside the school system, the school first must obtain the consent of the student's parent. FERPA offers a key exception to the prior consent requirement. Specifically, educators may disclose information without prior consent if the disclosure is being made to organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of education agencies or institutions in order to develop tests, administer student aid, or improve instruction (¤99.31(a)(6) of FERPA regulations). To meet this requirement, the researcher must have an agreement with the educational institution that the researcher is working on the institutions' behalf and that the study will create information that will improve instruction. Additionally, FERPA was amended in 1994 to permit nonconsensual disclosures of education records to officials in the state juvenile justice system and under certain special circumstances. Despite some loosening of restrictions, FERPA remains a significant barrier to data access for researchers.

Because educational attainment represents one of the few unambiguous outcomes that can be assessed with administrative records, substantial legislative efforts need to be taken to make this critical source of information about child well-being more available to researchers. Consideration should be given to amend FERPA to not require parental signatures for the routine use of administrative data in research in cases where students' rights to privacy are not jeopardized.

More must be done to allow educational data to be used by researchers to better understand the educational implications of other social programs. This would be a low-cost way to try to assist our highest risk children--who are most likely to be involved in multiple systems of care. FERPA has been revised to make it possible for schools to share information with correctional agencies. Under FERPA, schools may disclose information from law enforcement unit records (see ¤99.3 and ¤99.8 of FERPA regulations) without the consent of the parents or eligible students. This enables schools to give information to social services or juvenile justice agencies as long as the school district first creates and maintains a "law enforcement unit" that is officially authorized to (1) enforce federal, state, or local law, or (2) maintain the physical security and safety of schools in the district. Although this is a modest amendment of FERPA that may not have direct relevance to most researchers endeavoring to use administrative educational data (perhaps unless they are also studying law enforcement issues), it does suggest the willingness of Congress to modify FERPA for good cause. The "Solomon Amendment" of 1999 also limited the unintended implications of FERPA in order to deny aid to schools that either prohibit or prevent the Secretary of Defense from obtaining, for military recruiting purposes, access to directory information on students. The needs of researchers and policy makers to have good information about the educational outcomes of welfare reform (and other social programs) also are worthy of a FERPA amendment.

Perhaps because of the obstacles created by FERPA, there has been little work matching administrative records to welfare data to assess possible relationships between educational progress and welfare program participation. There are a few examples, however. Orthner and Randolph (1999) examined the impact of parental work and continuity of welfare receipt on the dropout rates of high school students in families in poverty. This work was accomplished by matching individual records of children who were enrolled in the JOBS program in Mecklenburg County with the administrative records from the Mecklenburg Unified School District. Some case record checking also was done of the paper school district records. Using event history analysis, they examined the risk of dropping out of school in light of potential effects on subsequent social and economic well-being. The data indicate that that consistency in parental employment (i.e., parents who worked in all quarters) and transitions off welfare are associated with lower rates of dropping out of high school. Longer spells on public assistance are associated with higher dropout rates.

Some community colleges have merged their data with the public welfare data to better understand the overlap between their student population and the welfare population (Community College Involvement in Welfare; www.aacc. nche.edu/research/welfare.htm/11/6/99). In a survey of 1,124 community colleges conducted by the American Association of Community Colleges, about 32 percent track students on public assistance. Among the primary reasons given for not tracking students were student confidentiality and privacy issues. Yet the disruption in the educational careers of welfare recipients that may occur with the end of the JOBS program and the institution of TANF could be an important outcome for young people. A straightforward way to study this overlap and the changes in this population is to merge administrative data from community colleges and TANF programs.

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