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Education department shares improperly redacted document

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Education said Tuesday it inadvertently released personal information about families that get a state-funded voucher to pay for private education.

Agency officials thought they had blacked out personal information when fulfilling three public records requests, but the redacted data could be uncovered by copying and pasting it into a new document.

The personal information included names and email addresses for parents, and for children with disabilities, a code corresponding to the disability, department spokesman Richie Taylor said. That redacted personal information appeared alongside public information including the child’s grade level and the balance of the voucher account.

Children’s names were not disclosed. The agency apologized for the error, said it has notified those affected and has asked the U.S. Education Department if privacy laws were violated.

“ADE takes these matters very seriously and will continue to make every effort to ensure data security and privacy,” the agency said in a statement, adding it will work with a federal educational privacy assistance office to ensure the mistake isn’t repeated.

The data for nearly 7,000 people was released to two media outlets and a representative from Save Our Schools, an advocacy group that has been critical of the voucher program, according to the Arizona Capitol Times. The data was not published publicly or widely disseminated, Taylor said.

Republican lawmakers and interest groups have been pushing to transfer authority over the voucher program from the Education Department and its Democratic leader, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, to Republican State Treasurer Kimberly Yee. They pounced on the mistake Tuesday, saying it shows that Hoffman’s office is mismanaging the program.

“I am sick of the politics that takes precedence over children and parents rights,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake. “I am sick of the left’s progressive assault on parents choice in education.”

The error means a group critical of vouchers, known formally as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, has the personal information of those receiving them, voucher supporters said.

“Everyone deserves their right to privacy, but especially children … we’re certainly not going to delve into or do anything with the info,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save our Schools, told the Capitol Times.

Redaction errors like the one made by the Education Department have tripped up a number of government agencies and lawyers. The legal team for Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s election campaign, last year inadvertently revealed nonpublic information about the criminal charges against him.

In 2018, Broward County school officials in Florida released redacted documents about Nikolas Cruz, the former student accused of carrying out a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Copying and pasting the material into a Microsoft Word file revealed the hidden material, which showed that school officials failed to follow state and federal laws that provide for disabled students.

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