The forecast for public access to teacher performance data under Florida’s Sunshine Law: Mostly cloudy

After a Florida court declared that reports about teacher performance must be kept confidential for a year after they are created, a state legislator is proposing to keep the information off-limits for even longer.

A bill filed Monday by state Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, would create an exemption to Florida’s open-records law limiting disclosure of state reports that measure how each teacher’s students are progressing academically.

The bill follows a March 11 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper, who denied a petition by the Florida Times-Union and its parent company, Morris Publishing, seeking immediate access to the state’s database of teacher performance data. (Disclaimer: the author used to work for both the Times-Union and for Morris.)

The newspaper is appealing the ruling, but the appeal could be rendered moot if Rep. Adkins’ bill is enacted, because it attempts to block public access to the data retroactively — meaning it would apply even to the newspaper’s still-pending request.

The request involves controversial “value-added data” that attempts to quantify how much difference a teacher is making by looking at how her students perform versus how they’d be statistically predicted to perform. The data accounts for half of each teacher’s annual performance score, which is factored into pay and retention decisions.

Judge Cooper ruled that the reports fall under a limited exemption in Florida’s Sunshine Law for teacher “evaluations.” Under that exemption, “evaluations” cannot be made public until the end of the following school year. The Adkins bill would lengthen that period of exemption from one to three years, making the reports essentially useless to the public.

Journalists’ use of teacher performance evaluations became controversial when, as part of a 2011 series in the Los Angeles Times, “Grading the Teachers,” the Times published the same data for Southern California that the Times-Union is attempting to obtain for Florida — to the embarrassment of teachers identified as statistical low performers. The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers, interceded in the Times-Union lawsuit to argue for confidentiality.

Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal agreed in March to hear the newspaper’s appeal of Judge Cooper’s denial. No date has been set for a hearing.