Just how far will a state agency go to deny legitimate requests for access to public records or information?
Well, if it is the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) there apparently are no restrictions on the artful dodge—even if it comes down to a literal, as opposed to liberal, interpretation of the state’s Public Records Act (R.S. 44:1 et seq.).
Skewing statistics has become a perfected art of State Superintendent John White’s Education Department (that’s right, he does seem to consider it his department), so why should parsing the dictates of a pesky little state law addressing public records be a problem?
But first, a little background on developments that led up to the latest standoff between the public’s right to know and Herr White’s reluctance to share information that isn’t pre-cooked by his part-time, $12,000 per month PR hack, er, “communications manager,” who still resides somewhere in Florida.
A posting by Class Size Matters http://www.classsizematters.org/about-us/, a non-profit organization that advocates for class size reduction of New York City’s public schools, released information that Louisiana is one of four states planning to share confidential student and teacher data with the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), a project of the Gates Foundation.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds a number of education initiatives and Gates’s company, Microsoft, has contributed $16,000 to several Louisiana political campaigns, including $2,500 to Gov. Bobby Jindal during his unsuccessful 2003 campaign for governor.
The Class Size Matters communiqué http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2013/01/parents-beware-ny-and-eight-other.html, was an alert for New York parents and said that New York “is one of five states that have agreed to share confidential NYC student and teacher data in Phase I with the Shared Learning Collaborative.”
The other states and districts in Phase I include districts in North Carolina, Colorado, Illinois and Massachusetts.
“Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana are in Phase II, according to the Gates Foundation, (and) intend to start piloting the system in 2013,” it said.
The claim by Class Size Matters was confirmed by the Gates Foundation’s SLC web page http://slcedu.org/states-districts/pilot-districts/about-pilot-districts.
“The data to be shared will include the names of students, their grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records—and likely race, ethnicity, free lunch and special education status as well,” the Class Size Matters document says.
“These records are to be stored in a massive electronic data bank, being built by Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of News Corp.,” it said. News Corp. is owned by Rupert Murdoch and was recently found to have illegally violated the privacy of individuals in Great Britain and in the U.S.”
Both Microsoft and News Corp. are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which drafts model legislation to be introduced in states across the U.S. by member lawmakers. Both Microsoft and News Corp. serve on ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force and News Corp. is a member of ALEC’s Education Task Force http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=ALEC_Corporations.
“Over the next few months, the Gates Foundation plans to turn over all this personal data to another, as yet unnamed corporation, headed by Iwan Streichenberger, former marketing director of a(n) (Atlanta) company called Promethean that sells whiteboards,” Class Size Matters said.
A foundation established by Jindal’s wife, the Supriya Jindal Foundation, has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations, many of them ALEC members, for the purpose of providing whiteboards to Louisiana classrooms.
There are serious questions as to whether this plan complies with FERPA (Family education Rights and Privacy Act), the document says.
Class Size Matters also released a copy of the 68-page contract between SLC and the New York State Educational Department http://www.classsizematters.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NYSED-SLC-Agreement-10-2012.pdf which said, in part, that there would be no guarantee that data would not be susceptible to intrusion or hacking, though “reasonable and appropriate measures” would be taken to protect information.
The contract also provides that the agreement may be reassigned to other service providers with prior written consent.
Similar language was included in the state’s contract with F.A. Richard and Associates (FARA) over the firm’s takeover of the Office of Risk Management ORM at an eventual cost of $75 million to the state. That contract, however, was reassigned not once, but twice within a year after FARA became the ORM third party administrator. Neither reassignment of the ORM contract received prior written approval from the state.
The Gates contract also allows for the unrestricted subcontracting of duties and obligations covered under the agreement.
All of which brings us to the ongoing standoff between LouisianaVoice and LDOE.
On Jan. 22, we submitted a request for public records and information pursuant to R.S. 44:1 et seq. specifically requesting the following information:
Any communications in any form or contracts relative to the Shared Learning Collaborative;
Information regarding Louisiana’s participation in Phase II of the SLC;
Any communication with or information relevant to Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of News Corp.;
• Any communication with or information relevant to Louisiana’s association or business conduct with any corporation or entity owned, led by or associated with Iwan Streichenberger;
• Any communication or discussion relevant to the sharing of confidential student information for the purpose of developing and marketing “learning products” or for any other purpose;
• All communication and/or contracts relevant to current or future association with Gates Foundation or its subsidiaries.
The request was addressed to White but of course, a departmental legal counsel was given the task of responding.
A Jan. 23 letter from attorney Troy Anthony Humphrey said:
“It is noted that portions of your request seek information; not documents that may be public records.”
Funny, that. Humphrey copied Willa LeBlanc with his response to us. Ms. LeBlanc was identified as being in the “LDOE Public Information Office.” Thusly, if portions of our request sought “information,” then why was Ms. LeBlanc not allowed to provide us with the “information” we requested?
“Such requests do not fall within the Public Records Act of Louisiana, which, except as otherwise provided by law, allows ‘any person of the age of majority’ only to ‘inspect, copy, or reproduce any public record,” Humphrey went on to explain in his best legalese.
“With regards to the above-mentioned request as written, and within the ambit of La. R.S. 44:1 et seq. the Department will identify and locate any public records in its possession that appear responsive to those requests which seek public records, by searching for the following items:
• “Written communications and contracts containing the phrase ‘shared Learning Collaborative’ or ‘SLC.’
• “Written communications containing the phrase ‘Wireless Generation.’
• “Written communications containing the phrase ‘Iwan Streichenberger.’
• “Written communications and contracts containing the phrase ‘Gates Foundation.’
“After any responsive items have been identified, the Department will segregate and set aside those public records that are available for your inspection. You will be contacted in order to make arrangements for this process.”
That, as we said, was on Jan. 23. The LDOE is now well beyond its three-day maximum for production of the documents as provided by law.
Last year, the agency attempted to withhold public records requested by the Monroe News-Star and only when the newspaper filed suit did LDOE surrender the requested documents.
So much for accountability and transparency.