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Florida Newspaper Keeps Fighting For Release Of Teacher Evaluation Data

A Florida appeals court is weighing whether the public should have access to data used in evaluating schoolteachers. The data in question are part of the state’s controversial new teacher assessments, and the Florida Times-Union newspaper wants the public to be able to evaluate the state’s methods.

In court, Florida Times-Union lawyer Jennifer Mansfield said the teacher data case is making “strange bedfellows” of two frequent enemies: the Florida Department of Education and the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association. The two sharply differ about so-called “value-added” teacher evaluations.

Mansfield told judges on the First District Court of Appeal, “We have these two contrary positions that are in heated public debate right now on how to best manage our schools and educate our children. And yet neither side wants the only information that the public could use to determine, ‘Is this the proper course?’”

The state denied the newspaper’s public records request for “value-added” data the state aggregates and supplies to school districts. Teachers’ pay and job security are tied, in part, to a reading of that data. Mansfield said the public should be able to evaluate the evaluators.

“For example, if you had a Teacher of the Year who had negative value-added scores, then something’s wrong. Either the subjective evaluation of Teacher of the Year is wrong or the value-added model is wrong,” she said.

Teachers’ union lawyer Jennifer Blohm said the value-added model is unfair because it applies school-wide performance indicators to individual teachers. She dismisses the idea that teachers fear the data would prove their position wrong.

“The fact is is that evaluations have been exempt for over 40 years. This is something we’ve supported for years and years and years. This isn’t just some new thing that we’ve come up with,” she said.

Most public-employee evaluations are public record right away. But teacher evaluations are exempt for one year. Blohm said it’s critical to keep that buffer before the public can look at evaluations.

“It gives a teacher a chance to contest the results of the evaluation,” she said. “It also allows the teacher to improve if there are deficiencies noted. You know, this is supposed to be a remedial system.”

Blohm told the court the data would, without question, fall under the exemption if school districts calculated it themselves.  She argued that shouldn’t change just because the Florida Department of Education essentially contracts with districts to crunch the numbers.

“Just because the school districts haven’t spent the millions of dollars to get a mainframe to do these calculations themselves that suddenly that means this 40-year-plus exemption that has been there doesn’t apply anymore,” she said.

But appeals court Judge Nikki Ann Clark pointed out public records law exempts evaluations held by school systems but doesn’t say anything about data held by the state. Clark questioned education department lawyer Steve Ferst when he contended the department is part of the education system.

“Right. It doesn’t say ‘education system.’ It says ‘public school system,’” Clark argued.

But newspaper lawyer Mansfield said who holds the data is a moot point because they are just a component of evaluations and don’t get an exemption on their own.

There’s no timetable for the Florida appeals court to make a decision in the case.

This story was originally published on July 16 and updated with more information on July 19.

For more news from Jessica Palombo follow @JessicaPubRadio on Twitter.