There is no guarantee in government more assured than a bill doing the exact opposite of what its name implies. The “Affordable” Care Act – need I say more? An early vintage of this phenomenon is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, otherwise known as FERPA amongst college students and their parents. This law, enacted over 40 years ago, purports to protect the privacy of a student’s education records. But, rather than protecting privacy it simply affirms what was already true: that parents, or whoever is paying the bill, could see the results of the product they are paying for, namely any and all records related to their student. Any educational institution denying such access wouldn’t last long as no one would go there. It’s like passing an act guaranteeing the right to eat a meal you paid for. Legislative accomplishment is often measured in answering questions no one was asking.

But rather than protecting privacy, FERPA seeks to undermine it by (a) taking away the rights of the person paying for the education by virtue of the student’s age and (b) carving out a host of exceptions to that privacy for a number of state actors and various “officials” that the student or the parent may very well wish to restrict access to. But they no longer have that right. They had to give it up in order to retain that which they already had.

As both my wife and I attended a “private” college we had no prior experience with FERPA. During the orientation day for the public university where our eldest son is attending we and (based on the laughter in the room) many other parents first learned of the head popping idiocy of this “law.” The school took great pains to underscore the reality that unless our child gave us specific written consent to access their “educational records” we would not even be permitted to pay their housing and tuition bill because disclosure of the amounts owed was an illegal sharing of a student’s educational records. Brilliant. So time to crank up the paperwork machine as 99% of parents “encourage” their student to fill out the permission paperwork just so they can pay their bill. I guess it never occurred to our wise overlords that perhaps it might be more efficient to make the default option the one that the vast majority requires.

I say we had no prior experience with this act because private colleges typically do not receive funding from the Department of Education. However most public universities do. So in that sense FERPA is “voluntary” – all the school has to do is opt out of such funding. But that’s about as likely as a shopaholic cutting up their credit cards. These schools are hooked on this federal money and will do anything the Feds “ask.” If the prospect is losing millions in DOE funding or making students and parents jump through absurd hoops or be grossly inconvenienced, they’ll choose the latter every time. If you make a deal with the Devil, then you play by his rules.