UFT lawsuit pushes back on education department redactions

A page from a batch of Department of Education emails released in June was almost completely redacted when it was released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. The UFT is suing over the scope of the department's redactions.

The city teachers union wants the Department of Education to justify withholding large swaths of information in emails it released to the union earlier this year.

The UFT announced today that it is filing a lawsuit charging that the department redacted more than it should have when it fulfilled a union request for internal emails earlier this year.

The emails were the target of a May 2010 Freedom of Information Law request by the UFT. The union wanted to see the communication exchanged between top department officials and charter school supporters in late 2009 and early 2010, a period when legislators were under pressure to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

The department did not quickly release the emails, saying that the request was too broad when it deferred the request each month. In April, two years after first asking for the emails, the union filed suit over the delay, and shortly after that, the department started releasing the emails in sections.

The emails shed some light on the department’s internal communications and showed that then-Chancellor Joel Klein kept close tabs on legislative advocacy around charter schools. But to a significant extent, they revealed nothing.

“The latest internal Department of Education emails to come to light are mostly dark: The 228 pages released today contain large swaths of blacked-out text,” we wrote in June, when the city released hundreds of messages from December 2009. Some pages contained only a black box, with every single word redacted. Other pages showed only small portions of messages, while others showed the emails that Klein had received but obscured his answers.

The state’s Freedom of Information Law allows public entities to withhold some kinds of information when it is requested, including information about collective bargaining, details that would violate public officials’ personal privacy, and some kinds of intra-agency communications.

But the union’s lawsuit charges that many, if not all, of the department’s redactions did not fall into protected categories. At the very least, the union says, the city should be forced to produce an itemized accounting of why it blacked out each of the emails it redacted.

The redactions were particularly galling to union officials coming as they did just months after the department responded very differently to another FOIL request — for individual teachers’ ratings, filed by several news organizations. In that case, as soon as a court cleared the way for the ratings’ release, the department handed them over to the news organizations, many of which published each teacher’s name and score.

“At the Department of Education, information is rarely free, particularly when important issues are involved,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today in a statement. “Like dozens of other organizations, from parent groups to the city’s media, the UFT has struggled to get the DOE to live up to its obligations to make public information public, and we have asked the courts to intervene.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Corporation Council said the city had not yet received the legal papers this afternoon. But she said city lawyers are confident that the redactions are all legal.

“The Department of Education has spent a great deal of time on the UFT’s voluminous request,” said the spokeswoman, Kate Ahlers, in a statement. “DOE gathered well over ten thousand e-mails and individually reviewed each one. We believe the redactions made were entirely lawful and appropriate.”

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”