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Right to Know V Fairness to Public Employees

“Too many Americans have become stupid and sheep-like because when we hear these things over and over again we begin to believe they’re true,” says Robert J. Freeman, the director of New York State’s Committee on Open Government.  The Committee is responsible for overseeing and advising in regard to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. 

Mr. Freeman has for years been the bane of many a New York superintendent’s tenure because of his pronouncements on the open meeting laws that govern school boards.  Very little, according to Mr. Freeman, constitutes a legal reason for executive session. Convening an executive session to discuss “personnel” issues simply doesn’t meet the standard for a closed meeting, but convening to specifically discuss a personnel appointment, discipline, or dismissal does.  Of course, once into executive session, board members’ conversation not infrequently strays to topics perhaps not appropriate to either open or executive session, but that’s another topic.

Sheep The occasion of Mr. Freeman’s observation regarding stupid Americans, however, was not topics that are appropriate for executive session, but whether ratings of teachers should be disclosed to the public.  Last month, on an appeal from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the New York City school system is required to release the ratings for its 12,000 teacher this year, upholding the earlier decision of the State Supreme Court. 

“In a variety of circumstances, courts have said that issues about public employees relating to their duties are public,” Freeman says.  “And in this case, the court found that the public has a significant interest in knowing how well or poorly individual teachers perform.”  Freeman admits that teachers will be concerned about public scrutiny following a release of their students’ test scores, but parents have a right to know “which teachers are good and which aren’t.”

This year the only teachers who will be rated according to the new guidelines are teachers in grades 4-8 who teach English language arts and math.  Principals will also be rated.  The expectation is that all teachers will fall under the new system next year.  One superintendent noted that making scores public might have “unintended consequences” like parents insisting that their students have only the best teachers.  To my mind, parents in the know have always done that, so it’s not much of an argument.

Still, another superintendent has a point when he notes in the Watertown Daily Times, “Once the lists are published, the public will form in their minds a perception of teachers, so we want to make sure that the scores are an accurate reflection of ability.”  Superintendent Patrick H. Brady adds,  “It’s a balance of the publics’ right to know, because we’re public institutions, and ensuring that teachers are treated fairly and not impugned by (inaccurate) data.”

Well said.  The public has a right to know, but the data has to be fair and an honest reflection of performance.  That, of course, is the trick.





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