Guest Column: Another bite at the apple of secrecy

By Josh Sharp
Director of Government Relations, Illinois Press Association

Ninety-six hours. That’s how long it took the General Assembly to make the performance evaluation of every public school teacher, principal and superintendent in Illinois exempt from public disclosure. Even more appalling is how this legislation eventually came to pass.

On Jan. 11, 2010, an amendment suddenly surfaced in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. That amendment was designed to net Illinois more than $500 million in federal funding through the new “Race to the Top” program for the state’s neediest schools—but it also exempted teacher and principal performance evaluations from public disclosure. Only in Illinois would teachers’ unions demand that more money be tied to even less accountability. The amendment was presented to the committee even before it appeared on the public record, and was approved by a 15-4 vote.

The legislation was then immediately moved to the House floor, but not before superintendent performance evaluations could be exempted from disclosure as well. They got their own special amendment, which was simply approved by a non-recorded voice vote on the House floor. This legislation would go on to pass both the House and Senate in a matter of days. It is now law, effective immediately, after Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the bill the same day he received it—Jan. 15. So, while other cities and states grapple with the realities of poor teacher performance and underperforming public schools, the citizens of Illinois are sadly absent from the debate.

In August, the Los Angeles Times posted on its website a database of performance evaluations for roughly 6,000 third- through fifth-grade city schoolteachers. The database received more than 230,000 page views the same day it was published. Even more recently, the New York City school system announced its plan to release “value-added” scores rating the performance of more than 12,000 teachers. How well do Illinois educators stack up? We’ll never know; that information has been deemed “off-limits” by Illinois legislators and, remarkably, it could get even worse if AFSCME and other public employee unions get their way.

For Illinois’ powerful public employee unions, an exemption for teachers, principals and superintendents was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. During the upcoming fall veto session, AFSCME and their allies plan on trying to muscle through legislation, House Bill 5154, which would exempt from disclosure the performance evaluation of every public employee in the State of Illinois. College presidents? Exempt. City administrators? Exempt. Police officers? Exempt. If this legislation becomes law, the performance evaluation of every single public employee in the State of Illinois will instantly become “top secret” information; undoubtedly a long-time dream of AFSCME, but a nightmare for Illinois taxpayers, who now, more than ever, demand accountability and transparency from a state mired with $15 billion in debt.

Access to these records is critical to government transparency; specifically, the public has a right to know about the performance of employees that their tax dollars are paying for—specifically those union employees who just recently received a guaranteed job through June 30, 2012, despite Illinois’ dire financial situation. Legislators should stand by language in the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which clearly states:

“The disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy.” [5 ILCS 140/7(1)(c)]

Public employee performance evaluations bear precisely on the public duties of public employees and, as such, should remain open and accessible to the public. There are no degrees of transparency—the citizens of Illinois should act quickly to reject the giant step backward that House Bill 5154 represents. Call your local state representative or state senator and urge them to vote “NO” on House Bill 5154. Without your help, another fundamental piece of the public’s right to know will likely be gone for good.

Josh Sharp is the director of Government Relations for the Illinois Press Association, which is the largest state newspaper association in the country representing more than 480 daily and weekly newspapers in Illinois. The Rock River Times is a member of the association.

From the Nov. 17-23, 2010 issue

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