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School District of Philadelphia v. Calefati

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

Date Filed: Aug. 11, 2021

Update: On Jan. 12, 2022, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Jessica Calefati and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Background: In 2019, reporter Jessica Calefati and the Philadelphia Inquirer submitted requests to the School District of Philadelphia under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law seeking school attendance records. The requests sought only aggregated data, not personally identifiable information.

The school district denied the requests, arguing, in part, that the requested records are exempt from disclosure under the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which protects students’ personal information. School officials also argued that disclosing the records would require them to create a new record, which school districts and government agencies are not required to do under the Right to Know Law.

Calefati and the Inquirer appealed the rejection to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. The OOR ordered the School District of Philadelphia to disclose the requested information, holding that the records were not exempt under FERPA. After the school district appealed, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County affirmed the OOR’s decision.

The school district then appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Our Position: The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania should affirm the trial court’s decision and grant Calefati and the Inquirer access to the requested records.

  • The requested information is not exempt from disclosure under FERPA.
  • Permitting access to de-identified records is crucial for government accountability.
  • The school district’s redaction of the requested information would not constitute “creation of a record” in violation of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.

Quote: “If schools are permitted to use FERPA to cloak de-identified data in secrecy, such data might never see the light of day, leaving the public in the dark about problems that could otherwise be addressed.”

Related: In July 2021, the Reporters Committee and 11 news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Energy Transfer and Public Utility Commission v. Friedman. The brief urged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hold that the Office of Open Records has the authority to determine whether records constitute confidential information.