Virginia lawmakers address student privacy, tuition spikes in General Assembly

More than 300 education-related bills were introduced in the upcoming spring Virginia General Assembly session, covering topics spanning from privacy to tuition freezes.

All education bills must go through the Education Committee in the House and the Education and Health Committee in the Senate before they head to the floor for a vote. Since bills on similar topics were filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, there is hope for compromise in the General Assembly.

Del. Tony Wilt (R- Rockingham) introduced HB 1, a bill seeking to require written consent from students before their directory information is released. The students or their parent/legal guardian would be able to withhold that information which includes the student’s name, address, birthday, place of birth, field of study and more.

Wilt said there is bipartisan support for the legislation. Although he couldn’t speak to what concerns legislators may have about the bill, he is confident in a positive end result.

“Students should have a reasonable expectation to privacy,” Wilt said. “The expectation should be that their school is not releasing their personal contact information and other information to anyone that requests it unless explicit permission is granted.”

Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun) introduced HB 351, if passed, would impose a four-year cap on tuition for students attending public universities in the state. Meaning, the tuition rate charged to students in the fall of 2017 may not see an increase.

Similarly, a bill, HB 249, introduced by Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), would require each public college in Virginia to annually establish a fixed in-state tuition rate for incoming freshman or undergraduate transfers.

“I think it would be a great idea,” said Wanda Gibson, a mother of a VCU sophomore. “If it’s not possible to lower tuition, at least freeze the costs of education.”

The General Assembly is also addressing student privacy issues. Although the Virginia Freedom of Information Act guarantees government transparency, allowing access to public records, information on students attending public universities in Virginia may be kept out of public record.

“I think privacy is extremely important and the user has the right to know whether or not their information is in public record,”  VCU student Tiffany Srivilay, 21, said. “However, a cell phone and email is direct communication to a person and that is where the line is drawn.”

Del. Hurst introduced HB 147, seeking privacy for students. The bill would exclude a student’s personal cell phone number and personal email address from inclusion in student directories and other records shared under FOIA.

The legislation follows The Roanoke Times report that many Virginia universities gave student records data to NextGen America, a progressive political group. The Commonwealth Times revealed VCU gave the records data of more than 30,000 students.

“Nowadays, it seems like cell phone numbers and email addresses are inevitably part of someone’s identity,” Srivilay said. “Knowing that this information could have been entered into the public records frightens me.”

Matthew Barrett, Contributing Writer

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