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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Appeals court orders release of teacher evaluations

TALLAHASSEE -- Teachers’ results under a Florida Department of Education formula meant to measure student learning must be released to the public, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Tuesday.

A unanimous three-judge panel sided with The Florida Times-Union -- which had sought the release of the results from the “value added” model -- and overturned a Leon County Circuit Court ruling sealing the records.

The appeals court rejected arguments by the state and a teachers union that the documents should be exempt under a part of state law that shields teacher evaluations from public view until the end of the following school year.

Circuit Judge John Cooper had ruled that, because teacher evaluations are often closely tied to the findings of the state model, releasing the records would essentially open up evaluations to the public. Cooper ruled that each year’s results should not be available to the public for three years.

The evaluations are based on three years of data. Under Cooper’s ruling, the results each year would have been delayed for three years, until they were no longer in use. So the 2009-10 results, for example, wouldn’t have been available until after the 2012-13 school year, instead of being available after 2010-11.

The three-year totals would have been available the year after they were used.

But the appeals court said Cooper’s ruling improperly expanded the personnel exemption.

“Had the Legislature wanted any matter material to a teacher’s evaluation to be exempt from disclosure, the Legislature would have exempted personnel files as a whole,” Judge William Van Nortwick wrote for the court. “To the contrary, personnel files of public school teachers are generally subject to disclosure.”

The dispute is in some ways an outgrowth of the fierce battle over a performance-pay law that passed the Legislature in 2011. Teachers unions bitterly opposed the bill, which led to the Department of Education formula to measure student learning.

But the Florida Education Association, the largest union, joined the Department of Education in fighting the Times-Union’s request for the records. In a statement following the decision, FEA President Andy Ford urged the public to be careful when considering the results when they were released.

Ford said the model is “deeply flawed,” and that many teachers are no longer evaluated based on test scores because of more recent legislation.

“The evaluation data on teachers that is about to be made public is meaningless, which is why we joined in to enforce the public records exemption and prevent it from being published,” Ford said. “The numbers to be released are subject to misinterpretation. They have not been put in their proper context.”

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Education said Tuesday afternoon that the agency was still studying the decision.

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