Owasso Independent School District No. I-011 v. Falvo

PETITIONER: Owasso Independent School District No. I-011
RESPONDENT: Falvo
LOCATION: York County Court

DOCKET NO.: 00-1073
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 534 US 426 (2002)
ARGUED: Nov 27, 2001
DECIDED: Feb 19, 2002

ADVOCATES:
Edwin S. Kneedler - Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the court, supporting the petitioners
Jerry A. Richardson - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Wilfred K. Wright, Jr. - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Kristja J. Falvo asked the Owasso Independent School District to ban peer grading, or the practice of allowing students to score each other's tests, papers, and assignments as the teachers explain the correct answers to the entire class, because it embarrassed her children. When the school district declined, Falvo filed an action against the school district, claming that such peer grading violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). FERPA authorizes federal funds to be withheld from school districts that permit students' "education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein)" to be released without their parents' written consent and defines education records as "records, files, documents, and other materials" containing information directly related to a student, which "are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution." Disagreeing with Falvo, the District Court held that grades put on papers by another student are not "education records." In reversing, the Court of Appeals found that grades marked by students on each other's work are "education records," such that the very act of grading is an impermissible release of information to the student grader.

Question

Does the practice of peer grading violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974?

Media for Owasso Independent School District No. I-011 v. Falvo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 27, 2001 in Owasso Independent School District No. I-011 v. Falvo

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 19, 2002 in Owasso Independent School District No. I-011 v. Falvo

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court No. 00-1073 Owasso Independent School District versus Falvo will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The respondent’s children are enrolled in the Owasso School District which is in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the teachers there sometimes asked the students to score each other’s papers and assignments as the teacher explains the correct answers to the entire class and this is called peer grading where the students grade each other’s papers.

Now, the respondent, the parents, claim that peer grading violates a Federal Statute which is called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and the Act is sometimes referred to as FERPA.

Asserting the violation of the Act, the parents filed a 1983 Action against the School District and other school officials.

The Act authorizes federal funds to be withheld from school district that permits student’s education records or the information contain in the record to be released without the parent’s written consent.

At the offset we note that as an open question whether the Act provides Private Parties like these parents with a cause of action enforceable in the 1983 and we have granted certiorari on this issue in another case which we will hear later this term.

For purposes of the present case, the court assumes without deciding that FERPA provides private parties like the parents with a cause of action enforceable under 1983.

The question now is do they prevail in saying that this peer grading mechanisms are a violation of the Act.

The School District and the United States contain that education records include only institutional records like student grade point, averages, standardized test scores, and the records of disciplinary actions, but the parents adapting the Tenth Circuit reasoning contend the teachers grade books and the grades within are maintained by the teacher, and thus covered by the Act and the Court of Appeals reasoned that if the teacher cannot disclose the grades once they are written in the grade book it makes no sense to permit the disclosure immediately beforehand.

So the court thus held and the parents agree that student graders maintain the grades under the Act until they are reported to the teacher so they cannot be disclosed.

Two statutory indicators show that the Tenth Circuit aired: first, student papers are maintained by the student graders in their view and we conclude that this is incorrect.

The word "maintain" suggests FERPA records will be kept in a filing cabinet in a records room at the school or in a permanent secured database.

Perhaps even after the student is no longer enrolled, the student graders only handle assignments for a few minutes as the teacher calls out the answers.

Second, a student grader is not a person acting for an educational institution, that phrase connotes agents of the school.

Just as it would be awkward to say students are acting for the institution when they follow their teacher’s instruction to take a quiz, it is equally awkward to say that they are acting for the institution when following their teacher’s directions to score the paper.

Correcting a classmate’s work can be as much a part of the assignment as taking the test itself.

It is a way to teach material again in a new context and it helps show students how to assist and respect fellow pupils.

By explaining the answers of the class as the students correct the papers, the teacher not only reinforces the lesson but also discovers whether the students have understood the material and are ready to move on.

We do not think FERPA prohibits these educational techniques.

Respondent’s construction of the term education records to cover student homework or classroom work would impose substantial burdens on teachers across the country.

It would force all instructors to take time which otherwise could be spent teaching and in preparation to correct an assortment of daily student assignments.

Respondent’s view would make it much more difficult for teachers to give the students immediate guidance.

Indeed, the logical consequences of the respondents, arguments are all but unbounded at oral argument counsel for the respondents seem to agree that if a teacher in any of the thousands of classrooms in the nation covered by this act puts a happy face or a gold star or disapproving remark on a classroom assignment, Federal Law does not allow other students to see it.

With that Congress meant to intervene in this drastic fashion which traditional state functions.

Under the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of FERPA the federal power would exercise minute control over specific teaching methods and instruction on dynamics and classrooms throughout this country, the Congress does not likely to have mandated this result and we do not interpret the stature to require it.

The Tenth Circuit's decision is reversed and remanded.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.