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.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”