Los Angeles Times Wins Access to Individual Teacher Ratings in Lawsuit

L.A. County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant has ruled that ratings for individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District must be disclosed to the Los Angeles Times because they’re a matter of public interest. He said that the right of state and district residents to know how well the teachers were performing outweighed the teachers’ expectations of privacy under California’s Public Records Act.

LAUSD jointly with the United Teachers Los Angeles argued that making the individual ratings public would cause embarrassment for the teachers as well as make it harder for the district to recruit instructors. Chalfant rejected this line of reasoning, noting that the public had the right to know the details of each individual teacher’s performance and how effective the district officials were in allocating education funds and other resources.

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 sued to obtain three years worth of teacher grades that were determined by a formula that sought to isolate the impact teacher performance has had on student outcomes. The complex formula used objective performance data like standardized test scores to assess teacher effectiveness. District officials have long sought to use the resulting ranking – known as Academic Growth over Time – as part of teacher evaluations, but these efforts have been stoutly resisted by teachers unions whose leaders claim they’re 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.

The Times’ attorney argued that neither the union nor the district provided any concrete evidence proving that releasing the ratings would be harmful to teachers. In his decision, Chalfant agreed that any damage predictions were “speculative.”