John White’s Lawsuit to Block James Finney’s Public Records Requests: Some Details
On April 25, 2016, Louisiana state superintendent John White sued private citizen James Finney because Finney is making too many public records requests, and (according to White’s suit), White doesn’t have the records; it would take too much time and effort to create the records, and some information requested is exempt from public records law.
In this post, I do not dissect the entire lawsuit. Instead, I take the first section of the suit and reveal some of its soft underbelly.
The first request mentioned in the lawsuit concerns ACT scores. On September 08, 2015, Finney asked for information on ACT scores by district and school for the Class of 2015. On October 13, 2015, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) said it did not yet have the info. (For an interesting rabbit trail on that issue, see my post, John White’s Two Sets of 2015 ACT Scores.)
Finney also asked for total numbers of students for this ridiculous table, which supposedly reports how many “more” students scored 18+ on the ACT from 2011-12 to 2014-15 without including how many students took the ACT in 2011-2012 versus 2014-15.
Here’s how that works: Let’s say that 100 students in District X took the ACT in 2011-12, and 10 scored composites of 18+. Now let’s say that 200 students from District X took the ACT in 2014-15, and 15 scored a composite of 18+. In his spreadsheet, White hails this as an “increase” of 5 students scoring composites of 18+ from 2011-12 to 2014-15 for District X.
What readers of White’s spreadsheet do not get to know is that for District X, that “increase” of 5 is actually a decrease, from 10 percent (or 10 out of 100) scoring a composite of 18+ in 2011-12 to 7.5 percent (or 15 out of 200) scoring a composite of 18+ in 2014-15.
White’s LDOE has told Finney that it does not have information on the total numbers of students contributing to each district’s score. It has also told him that it does not have information of ACT score breakdowns (i.e., the number of students achieving each possible ACT composite score) for the years 2012 to 2015.
Though Finney notes it is inconceivable that LDOE does not have such ACT information compiled, Finney offers to compile the information himself if LDOE would provide only ACT site code and the corresponding ACT composite score for each student. Note that Finney is asking for no identifying information.
In order for LDOE to produce its shoddy, “look how many more students scored 18+ on the ACT” spreadsheet, LDOE had to have actual counts to do so. But now, it tells Finney that it does not have such information, and it sues him to try to convince a judge to get him to stop asking. (Interestingly, a page or so later, the suit implies that Finney’s request for actual numbers to make sense of the “18+” spreadsheet has been satisfied and that only the breakdown of ACT composites is what LDOE cannot deliver.)
On October 21, 2015, Finney broadened his ACT composite distribution request to include ACT composite scores from 2015 dating back to 1999– how many seniors scored at each of the possible ACT composite scores (1 to 36) by state and district. White’s suit states that it would be too much work to produce the information, and it further asserts that the information is exempt from Louisiana public records law by an impressive show of three revised statute code listings– none of which fit the situation.
The first law that White’s lawyer cites as an exemption is La RS 17:391. This statute refers to results of tests used to determine students’ “minimum levels of proficiency,” which the ACT is not. (Further in the suit, Finney asks for information on the scoring distributions of LEAP and EOC, but even that does not fit what is exempt here because Finney is not asking for individual student scores, nor average scores for individual schools nor for individual districts. Finney is asking for statewide scoring distributions.)
The second exemption White’s lawyer tosses in the mix is La RS 44:4 (33)(a), which concerns student name, address, and telephone number. Finney has not asked for such identifying information.
Finally, the third supposed exemption cited is La RS 44:4(27)(a), which concerns divulging the actual test itself. Finney has not asked to see any actual test. Again, he is primarily interested in scoring distributions– how many students achieved certain scores.
And that’s how White’s lawsuit against Finney begins. There is much more, but I will let it rest for now.
The suit certainly has its holes, and White and his lawyer must know so.
Interestingly, the lawsuit ends with White asking the judge to set a price for producing each public record that Finney has requested and that the court tells White to produce for Finney. Here White’s lawyer cites La RS 44:32, which already references a set fee schedule that Louisiana’s commissioner of administration should already have in place (La RS 39:241).
One question White should be prepared to answer is why statewide scoring distribution information on state-administered/contracted tests is not readily available or cannot be made readily available in an expedient manner. We are in 2016, and it is unacceptable for a state department of education to not be equipped to analyze scoring distributions of its own administered/contracted tests and readily produce reports of varied detail.
I don’t see White evading many if not most of Finney’s requests via this suit. It’s not like it’s White’s first time in court over public records.
He’s a repeat offender.
Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press: