Legislators are preparing to vote on a nearly $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year – a revised spending plan that trims more than $800 million from what legislators approved 11 months ago. Here’s a breakdown of the proposed budget by department and by line-item description. Hovering over the bubbles will display each department’s total budget. Clicking on a department will show line-item spending for that agency.
Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.
If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.
Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”
Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)
But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.
That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)
So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.
The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”
While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.
Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?
A 16-0 Syracuse run late in the third quarter added a dash of excitement, but overall, the UConn women dominated on their march to a fourth consecutive NCAA championship.
Use the scroll bar or arrows below to see how the individual players performed during the 40 minutes of play.
It was never even close as the UConn women steamrolled over Oregon State for a ticket to the NCAA championship game.
The Texas Longhorns kept it interesting for the first 15 minutes of Monday night’s game. But UConn’s seemingly unstoppable offense dominated the rest of the match, sending the Huskies to their ninth consecutive Final Four tournament.
Retail gas prices in the region have been cut in half since 2011, but a degree of pain persists for one class of drivers: those with high-end cars that require high-octane fuel.
If you luxury-car drivers feel like you’ve been paying an extra premium for premium fuel lately, you’re right. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that the price gap between regular unleaded and super unleaded has soared in the past year – the result, experts say, of tight competition for regular gas and costlier processing for the high-end stuff.
For most of the last decade, as the chart below shows, premium fuel was 7 or 8 percent more expensive than regular. But the gap began rising sharply in mid-2014. After a dip in early 2015, the gap skyrocketed, rising from a 12-percent surcharge last June to nearly 31 percent on Monday.
That translates to an extra 55 cents a gallon for premium unleaded today, more than twice the extra cost for most of the decade, even when fuel prices were far higher. And at some stations, the surcharge is far higher. At one West Hartford Shell station, premium users this week were paying an extra 90 cents a gallon – a 47-percent bump – for super unleaded. That’s an extra $25 every time a Lincoln Navigator owner fills up.
Why the big gap? Part of the explanation is the hyper-competitive market for regular gas, which makes up the vast majority of a typical service station’s sales. That’s the price most prominently featured on the giant lighted signs at gas stations, and it generates the thinnest profit margins as stations compete for price-conscious consumers. But drivers of pricier cars with more demanding engines tend to be less price-conscious and make for welcome targets as gas station owners look to make up for thin margins on regular gas.
“Stations find competitive benefits in dropping regular prices as a way to attract customers,” AAA reported in response to questions about gas prices. “The reality is that many premium customers will continue to shop at the same station regardless as to whether the price is dropping as fast as regular.”
At the same time, even with the hefty surcharge, some regular-unleaded users are splurging, since even the inflated prices for high-octane gas are far lower than the prices charged for regular gas just months ago. The current average price for premium gas in New England – about $2.32 a gallon – is 45 cents a gallon cheaper than customers were paying for regular gas last June. As regular-gas users treat themselves to high-test, that changes the supply/demand equation.
And some experts also say that boosting the octane of the raw fuel delivered to stations has become more expensive, particularly as the formulation of North American shale oil – the fuel currently in abundant supply – is better suited to regular unleaded than super. “As a result,” according to AAA, “supplies of regular gasoline have remained more plentiful than premium.” And that, too, changes the supply/demand equation.
But there may be relief on the way. AAA reports that historically, the price gap between regular and premium gas is at its highest in the winter. “In the summer,” the association reports, “the spread between regular and premium is at its closest.”
And summer is a mere 111 days away.
For years, it has been the policy of the state Department of Education to give school superintendents an advance peek at their district’s standardized test scores, a week or so before the high-stakes numbers are released to the public. And for roughly as long, transparency advocates have groused that such a policy seemed to put the public-relations concerns of insiders above the rights of the public to have prompt access to the government records they own.
But it took an enterprising reporter from the Journal Inquirer of Manchester to actually do something about it.
Last Aug. 19, a deputy commissioner at the education department sent an email to every superintendent in the state, announcing that aggregate district-wide data for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test would be made available to them later that day, but that the data was not to be shared with the press or discussed at a board of education meeting.
“As a courtesy, the embargoed results are made available for districts before results are made public,” the email stated. And breaking that embargo, the email warned, “jeopardizes your district’s access to future embargoed releases.”
Michael Savino, the J-I’s Capitol reporter, caught wind of the Aug. 19 email and immediately requested a copy of the district-by-district data the Department of Education had distributed to districts. The department declined, explaining that the data would be released to the public only after a “final quality control check” was completed.
“We set a high bar regarding accuracy of information that we generate and the public should expect nothing less from us,” a department official wrote in rejecting the request.
Nine days later, the data that had been released to the superintendents was released to the public. And two months after that, the press and the state squared off before a hearing officer with the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether that nine-day delay was legal.
The department argued that an advance copy of the test data – including student-by-student results – is sent to local school districts so superintendents can notify the department of any anomalies that might indicate errors. The department’s chief performance officer testified that the participation of superintendents is an important part of the department’s verification process.
“In essence,” wrote Attorney Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer, “the [department officials] argued that the record containing the aggregate district-wide test results was a ‘preliminary draft’ at the time it was requested because such results had not been verified by the superintendents and the department.”
But Ross wasn’t buying it.
“The Commission does not credit the testimony of the [chief performance officer] regarding the superintendents’ role in verifying the test scores, in light of the conflicting evidence that the aggregate district-wide test results were sent to the superintendents ‘as a courtesy’,” Ross wrote in a proposed decision released last week. Moreover, she said, there was no evidence that the department had asked superintendents to verify the data and report any problems, and no evidence that any superintendents had in fact provided feedback on the results.
Beyond that challenge to the department’s testimony, Ross wrote that the data did not meet the legal definition of a preliminary draft, and that the department violated the Freedom of Information Act when it delayed releasing the data to Savino.
After Ross’s proposed decision was released, an education department spokeswoman told the Journal Inquirer: “We are strong proponents of transparency, but we are also bound by our duty to ensure the information we present to the public is accurate.”
If the full Freedom of Information Commission adopts Ross’s findings at its Feb. 24 meeting, the department will know which of those two interests is paramount.
The state Department of Education took extraordinary measures last week to prevent even the slightest risk that you might find out how qualified your kid’s teacher is.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s not entirely the department’s fault. A three-decade-old state law exempts from disclosure all records of teacher performance and evaluation (because why would taxpayers care about the quality of the teachers they employ?). So when the state submitted aggregate school-by-school data on teacher ratings as part of a court case last week, they suppressed more than half the data points to make sure there was no possible way anyone could link a particular rating to a particular teacher.
The data show the number of teachers who fell into each of four categories in a new and controversial assessment of the state’s teaching force. The department did release statewide figures, showing that about a third of teachers were rated as “exemplary” by their school districts, a little under two-thirds were deemed “proficient,” and fewer than 2 percent were labeled “developing” or “below standard.”
But when reporting the data at the school level, the state withheld at least some of that information for nearly 7 out of 10 schools. For just under half the state’s schools, all of the numbers were suppressed. And all in service of making sure no one outside of the school system knows which teachers are extraordinary and which are struggling.
The department used an exceptionally strict suppression strategy, hiding the numbers if a particular category had been assigned to between one and five teachers at a school. The thinking apparently was that if four teachers at a school were rated exemplary, and they all knew each other’s rating, then they would know that no other teacher at the school had received that rating. To keep that category’s number secret, they also blacked out the number for the next-highest category. And by the time they were done, most of the numbers had been suppressed.
There are, for example, 66 teachers statewide rated “below standard.” But what schools they’re assigned to is a mystery; not one of the schools with a below-standard teacher is identified in the data.
There is plenty of reason to question the validity of the rankings, as reported by my colleague, Kathy Megan. But this is the teacher-performance scheme the state has imposed on its teachers, and taken $13.5 million from its taxpayers to implement. Does the public have no interest in seeing what the ratings revealed?
As The Scoop has written before, the secrecy surrounding teacher performance dates to 1984, when the legislature was hoodwinked into shutting off access to evaluations of public school teachers, purportedly to thwart teacher-shopping by parents. The law, however, applied to every certified school official below the superintendent, and before long, was extended to professors throughout UConn and the state university system as well.
While the statute was initially seen as a way to keep written performance reviews secret, educational leaders are afraid that releasing even anonymous data will put them on the wrong side of the law. That’s what’s behind a Freedom of Information Commission case in which a New Milford Board of Education member was turned down when he asked for the breakdown of teacher ratings for his district. The local board of ed is wary of releasing the data without direction from the FOI Commission. The teachers union, meanwhile, has intervened to try to keep the numbers from seeing the light of day.
While the Commission’s eventual ruling may resolve the issue for other school boards, the New Milford numbers came out in the court exhibit submitted by the state. Here’s what the union was trying to keep secret: Of the 346 New Milford teachers evaluated under the new system, 72 percent were deemed proficient and 28 percent were deemed exemplary. Not a single one was rated developing or below standard.
Does that sound like the sort of information that should be kept out of the hands of the public by the force of law?
A year ago, The Scoop published “A Transparency’s Advocate’s Legislative Wish List,” with eight suggestions for improving the public’s access to government records. In the 2015 session, legislators resolved one of the issues, fixing a confusing statute covering what arrest information police agencies must release. The other seven options are still on the table, including addressing that 1984 law that exempts teachers from the same level of accountability to which every other public employee is held. This year’s short session will be dominated by the budget. But there’s no reason our lawmakers can’t multitask.
So, legislators: Anyone care to step up in favor of government transparency?