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Transparency Watch: Council Prohibits Public Access to D.C. Teacher Data

dcogcadmin | July 1, 2015

As the D.C. Council took final action on the 2016 budget, marchers picketed in front of the Wilson Building Tuesday (30) chanting “Open Government Now.”  

Inside, Council members agreed, sort of.

They did vote, as the Coalition has long advocated, that video from police cameras will be public under rules now in development and — unfazed by huge but hazy cost estimates revealed behind closed doors last week — told the mayor to just find the money to get the job done. (On this vote and related back story, see Coalition report here; Abigail Hauslohner’s Washington Post account here.)

But in another action, the Council did a 180 on the open information highway, locking away from any requests some other public records, this time on the quality of charter school teachers, also at the mayor’s request removing them from review under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition earlier urged action be postponed. The data in question, provided by charters to the state office of education as part of federal grant requirements, are protected by a temporary legislative action for months to come in any case. The Coalition stressed the drastic new proposal, foreclosing any argument for the usefulness of release, was never subject to public hearings, and that fundamental public records law shouldn’t be changed by brief texts tucked away in a massive budget bill.

Other advocates, such as the Washington Teachers Union, argued that on the merits, the secrecy provision is bad policy, that teacher quality data from all D.C. schools, charter and DCPS, should be available to parents and the public. The Open Government Coalition took no position in the merits.

Coalition experts did question the need for new law, since the existing public records law has for years allowed exemption for personally identifiable details in records. D.C. agencies routinely take those out (called segregation or redaction) and release the rest without harm. It seems possible charter records held by a D.C. agency could be both subject to review for possible release, and also protected by existing privacy-protective exemptions the same way D.C. teacher records are protected.  DCPS denied a Washington Teachers Union request for teachers’ records (with personally identifiable details removed), and the union has asked the court to decide if that was correct. See WTU v. DC, Case No. 2015 CA 2651, D.C. Superior Court.