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Ed. Policy Irony: Union Pushes Back on D.C. Plan to Shield Evaluation Data

Teacher evaluations in the District of Columbia school system and the knotty question of whether certain components should be made public are again the subject of debate. Only this time, the scrutiny isn't just on how the teachers are performing, or whether the system is fair—it's on how the district is managing the system.

A variety of groups, most notably the Washington Teachers Union, are opposing efforts by D.C. officials to permanently shield data from the teacher-evaluation system, known as IMPACT, from public disclosure.

I know you're thinking: Wait, what? Unions typically want less, not more disclosure on evaluations. What gives?

As it turns out, there's a complicated history behind this, so bear with me.

To start off with, Washington's open-records laws are somewhat ambiguous on the issue of public employee evaluations. The exemptions in city code don't specifically refer to teacher evaluation, but do say that records can be withheld for privacy reasons. (That ambiguity led Education Week to conclude, when we last looked at this issue in 2013, that such information was theoretically permitted to be released.)

Then, in 2014, the D.C.council passed a series of temporary and emergency measures to shield "individual educator evaluations, effectiveness ratings, observation, and value-added data" from public disclosure. 

Now, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed adding those prohibitions to a budget bill—which would essentially render them permanent.

So why has this upset the Washington Teachers' Union? Because the union has filed several unsuccessful open-records requests to get information on the system. The WTU argues that IMPACT is biased against teachers based on age, race, and the different wards where schools are located. Access to the data is crucial to analyzing such patterns, the union says. But so far, the district has refused to turn over information, even with teachers' names redacted. In fact, the WTU sued the district to get the information, and that lawsuit is still pending in D.C. Superior Court.

"It makes me very nervous," WTU President Elizabeth Davis said about Bowser's proposal, which will be debated by the city council June 30. "It's like they're trying to make a law to prevent the release of this information."

Bowser, on the other hand, said in a letter to the council that the legislation in question would only apply to charter school employees; regular teachers, she contended, are already covered under the district's open-records laws.

DCPS didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

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