Record Retention Policies for Public Schools vs. Private Schools

September 16, 2020

In the age of data and privacy, records retention policies are essential for just about any institution or business that deals with people’s personal information. This is particularly true in the world of education, where a number of regulations intersect with parental concerns to result in a fraught climate for schools.

As academic institutions, employers, healthcare providers, and caretakers for their students, schools must deal with a uniquely complex variety of records and regulations on a daily basis. Naturally, this makes having a strong records retention policy vital to the smooth operation of any school, public or private.

However, there are key differences when it comes to the impetus for, and the implementation of, a records retention policy for either public or private schools. In this article, we take a look at what some of those differences are and how they might affect the decision making of administrators or boards of directors when it comes to instituting a records retention policy for a school.  

What is the Difference Between Public and Private Schools?

To begin with, it’s important to understand what makes private schools different from public ones (and what they share in common). While the differences may seem obvious, when it comes to records retention requirements and regulations for schools, things become a little more complicated.

Public School

At its most simple definition, a public school is any academic institution that is funded either fully or partially by the government. These are by far the most common school pre-K-12 school type in America, with approximately ninety percent of students enrolled in some form of public school. While most are traditional state schools, there are several types of public schools that fall within that umbrella.

Public schools can generally be classified as one of either Traditional Public Schools, Charter Schools, Magnet Schools, or Online Public schools. While each of these may be subject to slightly different rules regarding curriculum or attendance, they will all be governed by the same regulations when it comes to records retention policies and management.

Private School

The polar opposite of public schools, private schools are defined by their lack of public funding. However, the reasons for that, and their source of funding and educational approach, differ greatly. The list of variations of private schools is therefore essentially endless, but some of the most common examples are Religious Schools (which account for 78% of private school students), Montessori Schools, Language Immersion Schools, and Private Special Education Schools.

Regulation is Key

The greatest difference between public schools and private when it comes to records retention policies is the regulations by which they are governed. As one would assume, public schools are much more heavily regulated, which is part of the reason that private schools exist. This means that records retention tends to be more important for public schools than private, with greater consequences if a sound records retention policy is not in place.

Record Retention Policies for Public Schools

FERPA

The most commonly discussed regulation when it comes to the education sector is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In short, FERPA dictates how the educational records of all students attending federally-funded schools should be managed. This includes the disposition and retention schedules of students ‘protected information’ and who has the right to access the records of students. Most importantly, students’ protected information may not be shared with or sold to a third party, which is anyone other than the student themselves or their legal guardians.

The “protected information” which FERPA governs is divided int three categories: personally identifiable information, directory information, and educational information. A good records retention policy should ensure that all three of these categories are clearly defined. It should also make students, staff members, and all other stakeholders aware of who has access to them, and how they should be managed.

HIPAA

While not specific to the education industry, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does apply to some schools. HIPAA is a regulation designed to protect consumers and their privacy in the healthcare industry. For most schools, the healthcare that they provide to students (and the records created in the process) are governed by FERPA as educational records.

However, there are some instances where HIPAA may apply to schools, both public and private. These are generally situations where a school may bring in an outside healthcare provider or consultant. Either way, it is important that schools in both sectors consider HIPAA when formulating their records retention policies, as violations can quickly become expensive.

EEOC Regulations

While it’s easy to overlook, schools are not just places of learning. They are also employers and, as employers, they must adhere to the same standards of records-keeping that all employers are held to by a host of regulations enforced by the US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). These include the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Records Retention Policies for Private Schools

While less heavily-regulated than public schools, there are still regulations that private schools must abide by, many of which demand proper records management. These tend to vary more from state to state though when compared to public schools, which must all adhere to the federal regulations above. Due to the range of differences between how states handle regulating private schools and the different types of private schools within them, listing all of the potential regulations which might apply would not be useful.

While the level of regulation that private schools must deal with may vary greatly, the value of a robust records retention policy is universal. Any school will almost certainly have some form of state or local regulation that demands a level of process in place when it comes to student records. And, outside of student-specific regulation, private schools are also employers and must meet the fundamental records retention requirements outlined by the EEOC and other government bodies with regards to employee and financial records.

How to Implement a Records Retention Policy for Private or Public Schools

The critical thing to remember is that, public or private, schools should have a clearly documented and easy to follow records retention policy in place. And, thankfully, the fundamental guidelines for implementing one don’t change for either school type. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the guidelines for how to properly implement a records retention policy for public or private schools.

  1. Start by clearly defining all the records types that the school manages, including student records, academic records, employee records, financial records, and any other records types that pertain to your institution.

  2. Then, draw up a complete list of all the regulations for which you must meet compliance, including the records types which are covered by each regulation and their retention schedule.

  3. Before drafting the policy, also think about any operational requirements that you might have for records that are not covered by any regulation.

  4. Next, you need to begin drafting the actual policy by defining all of the specialist terminology that will be used so that everyone can understand the document.

  5. Then, all the stakeholders or roles should be defined, including their responsibilities and expectations, as well as their authority when it comes to managing different records types.

  6. Then, define the broad guidelines and policies for the general handling of records in the school.

  7. Finally, clearly define the specific procedures and timelines for the retention, disposition, and disposal of each records type.

As you can see, creating a sound records retention policy for schools is not a simple task. It requires a significant amount of upfront time and effort. However, once in place it will serve to protect against liability and increase operational efficiency long into the future.

Of course, simply having a records retention policy does not guarantee that it will be followed to the letter. Proper processes need to be put in place to limit the likelihood of failures in the system. A better option is to implement a specialized, third-party records management system. Modern education records management systems will massively reduce the amount of time and input needed from your team to set up your school’s retention policy. They will also automate the majority of actual records management so that you can remain in compliance and operationally effective without constant monitoring of all of your records by a member of staff.

Summary

When it comes to records retention policies for public schools vs. private schools, there are more similarities than there are differences. While it is important to understand the regulatory differences, the fundamental value of a having a records retention policy, and the process for implementing one, do not really change at all.

Just start by researching the different federal, state, and local regulations that govern your school type. Then, understand the operational requirements that you have for different record types and begin to define processes and document them. And, if you want to have real peace of mind when it comes to your records management and retention policy, use a specialist platform that will take all the hard work out of it for you.

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