California appeals court says school district can redact teachers’ names in test score data

CALIFORNIA — The Los Angeles Unified School District does not have to release the names of individual teachers in records about teacher performance, a California appeals court ruled July 23.

Through a California Public Records Act request, The Los Angeles Times asked the school district for three years of data connecting teachers, by name, with their students’ state standardized test scores. They wanted to measure “whether individual teachers helped — or hurt — students’ academic achievement,” according to a Times article.

When the data the district gave the newspaper listed teachers by codes, not by name, the paper sued in 2012, arguing reporters were entitled to the names and locations of the schools. A Los Angeles County Superior Court decided in favor of the newspaper.

In its decision last week, the appellate court ordered the case back to the trial court to determine if the school district should release location data for the schools.

“It’s conceivable that these codes could provide information that may be in the public interest, without creating a significant risk of workplace discord, or parental jockeying for the best teachers, while at the same time being less intrusive or embarrassing to individual teachers,” Judge Russell Kussman wrote in the appellate court opinion.

When the trial judge initially ordered disclosure of the names and locations, the judge found that the reasonable expectation of privacy for teachers didn’t clearly outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information. The majority of the District’s arguments were based on speculation, not evidence, the trial court found.

For example, Superintendent John Deasy argued that releasing teachers’ names could create a hostile environment in the school, “leading to resentment, jealousy, bitterness and anger, and proving counterproductive and demoralizing to some teachers,” according to the appellate court.

When reversing the decision, the appellate court said Deasy is an “expert in education,” so his speculative statements could be given significant weight.

In another Times article, the paper’s attorney Kelli Sager — who did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story — argued that “you can’t simply speculate on harm.”

“You have to have specific evidence of specific harm in a specific case,” Sager said.

Nancy Sullivan, the Times’ vice president of communications, said the paper will “pass on commenting.”

In a statement, Deasy said releasing the information would harm schools by creating a hostile and disruptive atmosphere and that schools should work with the public’s trust.

“Upon boarding a flight, passengers do not have access to the pilot’s employee rating,” Deasy said in the statement. “Those traveling must place their trust in the airline’s accountability system that the pilot is not only competent, but also capable of safely flying the plane. I believe it is in the public’s best interest to grant schools a similar kind of trust when educating children.”

In addition to altering the school environment among teachers, Deasy also said that if the information was released, parents could try to get their students into classes with teachers who had higher scores, according to the court’s opinion. While it makes sense that parents want their children to get the best education, Kussman wrote, the court concluded that this is a private interest and not a public one.

While the newspaper has the option to petition the appellate court for a rehearing or to petition the California Supreme Court to hear the case, Sager said in a Times article last week that it is “exploring its options.”

Contact Kass by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.