Access to teacher evaluation records fuels privacy versus transparency debate

How government employees do their jobs is both a matter of legitimate public concern and also a source of potential embarrassment for any employee whose records are published for public examination.

The judgment call in favor of disclosure gets easier as the government employee’s rank gets higher. We don’t — or shouldn’t — worry that a person willing to compete for a high-profile job like police chief or school superintendent will get his feelings hurt by critical comments about his job performance. The decision is trickier when the employee is a public school teacher, and doubly so because the way teachers are evaluated is itself a source of much dispute. If you’re a teacher who believes the evaluation system is unfair, it feels especially unfair to be publicly labeled a “bad teacher” on the basis of an unreliable assessment.

Reconciling that tension between individual privacy and public accountability has proven to be a struggle for state courts, and recent rulings have resulted in inconsistent outcomes for those seeking access to teachers’ records:

  • In California, the Los Angeles Times lost its bid to obtain the performance ratings of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District by name and location of school. A three-judge panel ruled April 24 that the privacy interests of the teachers outweighed the interest in disclosure, which the judges characterized as advancing primarily the personal interests of parents rather than a broader public interest. The Times was given a list of anonymous evaluation scores, identified only by grade level, from an LAUSD scoring system that tries to gauge each teacher’s effectiveness in improving student test scores. Attorneys for the newspaper argued, unsuccessfully, that the public has an overriding interest in knowing whether particular schools are ineffective. The 2nd District Court of Appeals ruling overturned a lower-court decision finding the complete evaluation results to be a matter of public record.
  • In Florida, Jacksonville’s Times-Union convinced a state appeals court to release data showing the “value added” scores assigned to each Florida teacher as a result of students’ performance on a standardized test. Teachers receive credit for the improvement their students show on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and those credits are a factor (along with principal evaluations) in each teacher’s performance evaluation. Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals agreed with the Times-Union that, while the Florida Public Records Law allows agencies to withhold “employee evaluations,” the test scores were not “evaluations,” just part of the raw data that goes into the evaluation.
  • In Wisconsin, a trial court ordered the Appelton school district to release records of disciplinary actions in the files of seven administrators, teachers and teacher aides. The records were requested by the parent of a child who’d filed grievances alleging abuse by employees in the district’s special-education program. The school district argued that the documents were exempt from the Wisconsin open records law because their release might interfere with disciplinary and legal proceedings against these employees and future employees, but Circuit Judge Dee R. Dryer disagreed. In a Feb. 7, 2014, ruling, Judge Dryer ordered the Appleton Area School District to release the files, finding that the public has an interest in knowing how and why school personnel are disciplined that overrides any privacy interest in the disciplinary actions. (The judge rejected the school district’s argument that disclosure would harm future investigations by deterring complainants from coming forward. Disclosure, she said, would in fact be more likely to motivate investigators to do their jobs diligently.)

Access to records reflecting teachers’ job performance is, like all access issues, dependent on the fine print of each state’s open-records statute. In some states, such as Florida, the law strongly presumes that all records — even personnel files — are a matter of public interest and subject to public inspection. Other states put a higher premium on the privacy of potentially embarrassing material contained in those records.

As the Los Angeles Times case illustrates, it should almost always be possible to get generic, de-identified records, and at times that can be enough to tell the story. So a blanket refusal to disclose is rarely the right answer.