La. education dept. withholding voucher records
BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana’s education chief has refused to provide records from the deliberations over how schools were chosen to participate in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s new statewide voucher program, which is using tax dollars to send students to private and parochial schools.
The Department of Education isn’t claiming an exemption to public records law in denying the June 12 request from the Associated Press and delaying any production of the internal documents for at least several more weeks.
Instead, the department is claiming “a deliberative process privilege” cited in two court rulings that have nothing to do with education issues, but involve legal battles over what records should be available to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Through a spokesman, Superintendent of Education John White said yesterday that he’ll release the documents in September, after voucher enrollment is set in a Sept. 1 student count. Any release before that, White claims, could create confusion for parents.
“We’re committed to fulfilling the request when the process is finished, and that is when all student assignments are final,” said Barry Landry, education department spokesman.
Asked why the documents will be hidden until then, Landry said, “Our concern is providing outdated information that may cause confusion to parents who are trying to make decisions around their participation in the program.”
The information could provide insight into the types of discussions that decided which schools could participate in the program, show how deeply education officials scrutinized individual schools and indicate what they considered red flags for participation.
The leader of a nonpartisan public policy group that supported creation of the statewide voucher program and other Jindal-backed education initiatives said yesterday that he saw no reason to withhold the documents.
“I think transparency is good, and I think particularly in a program that has received a lot of attention and a lot of scrutiny, the more transparency the better. I don’t think anybody’s damaged in seeing how policies are developed,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana.
The voucher program, pushed by Jindal as a way to expand educational opportunities, will send students from low- to moderate-income families to private and parochial schools. Students are eligible if they would otherwise attend a public school graded with a C, D or F by the state.
More than 5,600 students have been offered voucher slots to attend 118 private schools.
The program has faced strong criticism that it will siphon dollars away from already-struggling public schools and use tax dollars to send students to religious schools.
Other complaints have been lodged about the quality of individual schools in the program and whether some schools chosen to receive hundreds of thousands in tax dollars have adequate facilities, teaching staff and curricula. Only two schools were deemed ineligible to accept state-funded students, both in southwest Louisiana.
In June, the Associated Press filed a request with the Department of Education, seeking documents on the development of criteria used to choose schools to participate in the voucher program, along with records about individual schools that were accepted or rejected.
More than seven weeks later, a spokeswoman for the department gave AP three documents: the formal letter sent to schools selected to receive voucher students and nearly identical letters sent to the two schools rejected from participating in the 2012-13 school year.
All other documents were withheld.
“Any records pertaining to the development of criteria and the decision of whether to accept or reject schools are not considered public records, per numerous court rulings,” education department spokeswoman Sarah Mulhearn wrote in an e-mail.
When pressed this week for an explanation of why White would want to keep the information shielded, the superintendent agreed to release the documents at a later date, after the Sept. 1 voucher student count.
Mulhearn referred to two court rulings from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge in claiming a protection for the “deliberative process privilege.”
She cited a ruling that says the privilege allows people in government agencies to offer “uninhibited opinions and recommendations without fear of later being subject to public ridicule or criticism,” and “to protect against confusing the issues and misleading the public by dissemination of documents suggesting reasons and rationales for a course of action which were not in fact the ultimate reasons for the agency’s action.”
Both of the cases named by the education department involve disputes in which the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office was denied documents from the Public Service Commission and the Department of Insurance. The appeals court upheld the agencies’ ability to shield some records.