The performance ratings of individual teachers in the city school district are matters of keen public interest and should be released to the Los Angeles Times, a judge ordered Thursday.
L.A. County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled that the public interest in access to the ratings outweighed any teacher expectations of privacy under the California Public Records Act. He rejected arguments by the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles that the records were confidential personnel information that, if released, would create discord, stigma, embarrassment, difficulty in recruiting teachers and other harm.
"The public has an interest in disclosure of the scores because they reflect on both student achievement and teacher performance, as well as on LAUSD's choices in allocating time and resources," Chalfant wrote.
However, he said that the decision was a "close call" and that he had been "wringing my hands, Hamlet-like" over it. He also said he personally believed that disclosure was not good public policy, but that "my personal beliefs are not relevant."
"The court does not set public policy … the court follows the law," he wrote, adding that the Legislature could change the state law if it found disclosing teacher ratings proved destructive.
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 two sides have agreed not to use individual ratings in evaluations and have joined to fight The Times' request for them.
Jesus Quinonez, an UTLA attorney, said the union would probably appeal the ruling and request that no records be released until the case is settled. "We obviously but respectfully disagree" with Chalfant, he said.
The district and union argued 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 peformance 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.
Rochelle Wilcox, an attorney representing The Times, said the district and union provided no evidence that publishing the information would harm teachers, a point Chalfant accepted in saying that claim was largely speculative.
"The school district is compiling this information to benefit the public and the public has a protected interest in evaluating the district's performance," Wilcox said.
Chalfant also wrote that controversy over whether these so-called value-added methods are reliable was irrelevant to whether the public had a right to the information. He noted that courts have previously ruled that information does not have to be reliable to be subject to public disclosure.
“Vigorous public debate about whether teacher AGT [Academic Growth over Time] scores are useful is to be encouraged, not stifled,” he wrote.
The judge scheduled another court date for Aug. 27.
The Times received test score information from the district previously and published a database with individual teacher ratings. The newspaper is seeking to update that database.