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Department of Education inadvertently releases private information of ESA recipients

Posted at 7:04 PM, Jan 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-28 21:04:05-05

PHOENIX — Valley parents are furious after learning personal information attached to their children's empowerment scholarship account, or ESA, was released as part of a public records request.

Parents began learning what the Department of Education did Monday night. Their names, email addresses, the classification accounts of their children, and how much money they received - all of it private and all of it released.

A Valley mom who agreed to speak to ABC15 as long as we did not identify her said, "I was livid. I am a former teacher. I know the law. I know that information is not supposed to e disclosed."

The Department of Education was responding to a public records request from two media outlets and a third person who wanted to know how much money remained in its ESA account. They say the release was not intentional and a mistake.

The department is being sued by the Goldwater Institute on behalf of parents who complain the agency is dragging its feet when releasing scholarship money to students who qualify.

Arizona Capitol Times reporter Dillon Rosenblatt, who made one of the public records requests, said he accidentally received the information. "They were redacted," Rosenblatt said.

"Then I accidentally clicked on something on the part of the records that were redacted and it took me to a new email with someone's email address."
Rosenblatt then opened up a new window and hit paste gaining access to the rest of the redacted information.

The Department of Education says just over 5,000 of the 7,000 families who qualify for the scholarships had their information released. ESA families received an email from the Department telling them if their information was compromised or not.

That was not enough to satisfy the mom who spoke with us. "It is completely illegal to disclose this information," she said. "It is private information that directly involves my child and his education diagnosis. His privacy has been breached."

On the floor of the State Senate Tuesday, Education Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Allen said the information released was not a mistake. Long a critic of how the Department of Education administers the ESA program, Allen wants to make changes.

"It's time we remove the ESA program out from the Department of Education and put it where it could be run efficiently, correctly and without political malice and intent."

A spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Brnovich tells ABC15 the information release appears to be a violation of federal law. It is now seeing what steps, if any, it can take regarding the matter.

In the meantime, many of the parents plan to file a complaint with the Federal Department of Education asking it to reprimand Arizona for violating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.