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Judge delays release of Los Angeles teacher ratings

August 27, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe

The performance ratings of individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be kept confidential until a legal battle over them is resolved, a judge decided Tuesday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled earlier this month that the ratings must be released to the Los Angeles Times because public interest in them outweighed any teacher privacy rights under the California Public Records Act. But L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles joined to ask Chalfant to delay the release until they could appeal the ruling.

In their court filing, the district and teachers union argued that “immediate release of the scores will cause irreparable harm to privacy rights, and that harm dramatically outweighs any prejudice or inconvenience that might be caused by a brief delay in public release of the records” pending their appeal.

The Times had opposed a delay, arguing that the Legislature had severely restricted agencies from using appeals as a delaying tactic to keep public records secret. The public records act bars courts from ordering delays unless those fighting disclosure have a probable chance of success and would suffer “irreparable damage” by the release of documents before the case was settled. The act also requires agencies to file a special appeal within 20 days after the initial ruling.

A delay would frustrate “the fundamental right of every person in this state to have prompt access to information in the possession of public agencies,” the Times argued in its legal filing.

Chalfant agreed with the district and teachers. To the extent that teachers and administrators would be harmed by the release of ratings, “there is no remedy that would undo that harm or restore the confidentiality lost,” he said in his ruling.

In courtroom remarks Tuesday, Chalfant said he usually does not grant delays because he is normally confident that his rulings are correct. But he said he “agonized” over this case and called his earlier ruling for The Times a close call.

In that ruling, the judge rejected arguments by the district and teachers union that the teacher performance ratings were confidential personnel information that, if released, would create discord, stigma, embarrassment, difficulty in recruiting teachers and other harm. He said the public had an interest in the ratings because they indicated student achievement, student performance and district choices in allocating time and resources.

The Times sought three years of district data, from 2009 through 2012, that show whether individual teachers helped — or hurt — students' academic achievement, as measured by state standardized test scores.

Using a complex mathematical formula, the district aims to isolate a teacher's effect on student growth by controlling for such outside factors as poverty, race, English ability and prior test scores. The district sought to use that type of analysis, known in L.A. Unified as Academic Growth Over Time, in teacher evaluations but was fiercely resisted by the teachers union, which argues that it is unreliable.

The district and union argued earlier in court that teachers could reasonably expect that their ratings were confidential personnel files. But Chalfant ruled that the ratings don’t contain personal information or specific advice, criticism or other evaluative comments by supervisors that would protect them from disclosure.

Rather, he said, they were statistical tabulations of public data about student performance in a teacher’s class — rejecting the district’s contention that its decisions about how to create the formula made it a subjective tool that should be protected.

Chalfant said he was concerned about how long an appeal would take and would review his order to delay release of the ratings at another court hearing Nov. 12.


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