New York Teachers' Union Fights City Over Release of Performance Reports

The United Federation of Teachers went to court to stop the New York City Department of Education from publicly disclosing the names and performance reports of teachers in the biggest U.S. public school system.

Oral arguments were held today before Justice Cynthia Kern in New York state Supreme Court in Manhattan in the union’s suit to block the release of evaluations meant to show individual instructors’ success in boosting student test scores. The union wants the teachers’ names redacted. Kern didn’t rule.

Charles Moerdler, an attorney for the union, told the judge the data is flawed and misleading and intended for teachers and administrators, not public release. He warned of damaging teachers’ reputations and said a city agreement not to disclose the material is binding.

Jesse Levine, the city’s assistant corporation counsel, argued the reports are a “statistical tabulation” not exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which news organizations used to try to obtain and publish the data.

New York City’s public school system has 1.1 million students, according to the Department of Education website. Its performance ratings use “value-added” analysis to assess teachers, according to a court filing by the union. This approach attempts to determine whether pupils make larger or smaller gains than their previous test scores would have predicted.

‘No Case Law’

“No case law supports the withholding of statistical data solely because it contains errors,” Levine wrote in court papers on behalf of the department. The data went through a verification process and “individual claims of error are addressed,” Levine wrote.

A 2008 letter from a deputy chancellor of schools to the union agreeing to keep the teacher data confidential doesn’t matter, the department said.

“What we said is these are used for internal purposes and we will not voluntarily disclose,” Levine told the judge. The “law compels” the department to release the information.

“An agency’s agreement to maintain confidentiality is of no consequence if it is obligated under FOIL to disclose requested information,” he wrote in his brief.

Public employees also have a more limited right to privacy than the general public, and any invasion of privacy “is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure,” the department said.

‘Privacy’

“The letter explicitly said, ‘We’re going to give you privacy,’” Moerdler said. “No teacher will ever again participate in any pilot project if this is not the case.”

Moerdler described a hypothetical story in the New York Post with the headline “The 100 Worst Teachers in New York” and said reputations might be ruined based on flawed data.

The Wall Street Journal, New York Post and New York Daily News were among the news organizations that sought to have the teacher ratings disclosed. Bloomberg News also filed a request. New York was scheduled to release the data on 12,000 teachers before an agreement was reached in October to withhold the names until the case was heard.

David Schulz, an attorney representing news organizations including the Post, told the judge that the quality of the information wasn’t a reason to withhold it.

‘Taxpayers’ Money’

“FOIL exists to expose agencies that are incompetent in doing things with taxpayers’ money,” Schulz said. “People who are doing work at taxpayer expense recognize they have a diminished expectation of privacy with respect to their jobs,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times in August published a series of articles that analyzed 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers’ effectiveness in raising students’ math and English scores. The release of the data spurred union protest, and one teacher committed suicide after the articles’ publication.

“The relief we seek is to redact the names,” Moerdler said. “The city of Los Angeles did this routine and a teacher jumped off a bridge. Do we need that?”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

The case is Mulgrew v. Board of Education of the City, 113813/2010, New York state Supreme Court (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Freifeld in New York at kfreifeld@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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