one man's libel...

Union and city spar over public release of teachers' scores

Calling the city’s reports on teacher effectiveness “misleading and grossly flawed,” lawyers for the teachers union argued that the city has no right to release them with teachers’ names attached.

Attorneys representing the city’s Department of Education, United Federation of Teachers, and several city news outlets made their arguments for-and-against the information’s release in New York’s Supreme Court today. Over the summer, several reporters asked for teachers’ effectiveness scores with names included under the Freedom of Information Law. Though the city initially planned to give reporters the scores, it left the decision in the court’s hands after the union sued to prevent the release of teachers’ names.

Contained in documents called Teacher Data Reports, the scores measure how a teachers’ students performed on state math and reading tests against how a model predicted their students would perform. Though the city and union have agreed to include these scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, they’ve become a lightning rod for criticism as some academics have questioned their reliability.

Arguing before Justice Cynthia Kern, a lawyer for the union said the scores with teachers’ names attached are exempt from disclosure under Freedom of Information law because they are intra-agency documents and because they have the potential to harm teachers, impinging on their right to privacy.

“These reports were to help teachers improve themselves and to help principals,” said union lawyer Charles Moerdler. “If there’s anything that’s intra-agency, it’s that. It isn’t for the purpose of providing fodder for the media.”

Senior lawyer for the city Jesse Levine argued that while the analysis and data that go into producing the reports are considered intra-agency materials and not subject to FOIL requests, the reports themselves are not.

“The statute is very clear: it does not allow us to withhold these statistics and that’s what they are,” Levine said. “They are factual, they are objective, and the numbers speak for themselves.”

Moerdler contested this point, saying that the reports may contain statistics, but the data used to create them is subjective.

“If you look at their Teacher Data Reports, it says this is the predicted score of the person, not the actual score — not a score that is something that is certain,” Moerdler said. “A prediction is not objective. It is layer upon layer of subjective information.”

Moerdler also argued that a deal made in 2008 between then-president of the United Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten and Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf that the city would keep the reports private, amounted to collective bargaining. He said that the city had bargained away its right to release the scores with names and that, in the past, when reporters had submitted FOI requests for “all” the data reports, the city had declined to release them with teachers’ names.

Now, the city’s intent to release them with names is “arbitrary and capricious,” Moerdler said.

“The city cannot bargain away the public’s right to those documents,” responded David Schulz, a lawyer representing several news outlets. He also argued that teachers, as public employees, lose their right to privacy when they take jobs working for the government.

After the hearing, Moerdler told reporters that he believes that, outside of the law, there’s a moral problem with the city’s eagerness to release teachers’ names along with their effectiveness scores.

“It’s morally wrong, it’s ethically wrong, to put out libelous material,” he said. “Particularly at this time of the year, you do not go out and hurt people,” he said, invoking the holiday spirit.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news