Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.”

Accountability matters

And not just for schools but for the public officials who design the laws and rules governing education in the state. The governor, legislature and other state officials were responsible for the school grading system that was in place for 2014-15. Citizens should be able to see and evaluate what they did. We should be able to check the grade calculations and be sure they’re accurate.

And if holding schools harmless – by awarding them either the grade they earned in 2013-14 or 2014-15, whichever was better – was the right thing to do, we should be able to see and judge for ourselves.

Schools should be treated equitably

In fact, not all schools were held harmless for the grades they earned in 2014-15. If they earned an F in both years, we know that. And if they were labeled with an F in 2014-15, they weren’t held harmless at all; the result could subject them to state sanctions if they get failing grades too many years in a row.

Suppose School A earned a C in 2013-14 and an F in 2014-15. It gets a C on its record. No one knows how it actually did in 2014-15. School B earned an F in 2013-14 and an F in 2014-15. We know how it did in the second year: It got an F. Why are the schools treated differently if they performed the same?

School officials claimed the grades earned in 2014-15 were unfair and misleading because the state adopted new, more demanding standards and new tests. But if the grades were unfair, they were unfair for all. Holding schools harmless should mean canceling all grades, not keeping most of them secret.

The law matters

The education department claims it can withhold the grades because they are deliberative material, which means they are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making. But I was asking not for expressions of opinion but for hard data: The scores on a 4-point scale used to set the schools’ grades. Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt agreed the data should be disclosed.

The “deliberative material” exception has to be one of the most over-used and abused loopholes in the state public records law. Public officials are liable to shield any sort of record from disclosure by claiming that it includes an expression of someone’s opinion and therefore shouldn’t be made public.

Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act is a pretty good law on paper. But when government officials can thumb their noses at it with impunity, the public loses.

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