Senate Open Government Committee hears testimony on student records

By Kelley Shannon
FOI Foundation of Texas
Executive Director

AUSTIN _While federal law prevents a student’s record from public release once the student is in college, laws are not as clear for those who applied to but did not attend the school, witnesses told the Senate Open Government Committee on Wednesday.

“There is definitely a gap there,” said Carol Longoria, assistant deputy to the president of the University of Texas at Austin. However, she said, the university has successfully argued to the Attorney General’s Office that applicants’ records should be kept private, too.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate committee, said his committee will work on a recommendation to the Legislature. The panel was studying the subject as directed under an interim charge between legislative sessions. He said he also was concerned that private student information might be released through transcripts or letters of recommendation when students seek employment in the public sector.

Fernando Gomez, vice chancellor and general counsel for the Texas State University System, said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,  known as FERPA, and the Texas Public Information Act approach information from two different perspectives, with the Public Information Act presuming that all information is open unless there is an exception to release. However, Gomez noted, that there are several exceptions in the act that ban the release of student records.

Although the state law requires transparency, Longoria said, it doesn’t mean all information must be released. She said the Texas Public Information Act is not a “vending machine or cookie cutter area of the law” and that each request for information must be examined individually.

Two members of the public also testified before the committee. One told of her difficulty in obtaining records from the University of Texas at Austin that pertained to her time there as a student and said the university tried more than once to delay a response to her request. Another woman who has a daughter with a disability testified that she experienced difficulties getting special education records and budgets from a public school district.