October 15, 2012
Our people are crying out for more communications. We are going to get them more communications.”
That comment was made by State Superintendent of Education John White in defending his department’s hiring of a $12,000-per-month manager of communications. His point was that if his department’s policies are to succeed, then teachers, parents and other stakeholders in public education need to know about the education department’s activities.
We couldn’t agree more with the idea that clear and timely information about the work of agencies such as the Louisiana Department of Education is important in building public confidence in government.
That’s why we’re puzzled that White’s department would backtrack on a promise to publicly release documents dealing with the new statewide voucher program.
On June 12, The Associated Press asked for state Department of Education records involving how schools were chosen to participate in the voucher program championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The department rejected the request on Aug. 3. But a spokesman for White later told an AP reporter that the records request would be fulfilled in September, after final voucher enrollment numbers were tallied.
But after the September deadline had passed, White said that the request for records, emails and other communications relating to the voucher program was “overly broad.” Additionally, he said that records pertaining to the development of policies or deliberation among managers are not public records, which we doubt. We must note that even if White is correct and he is not legally required to release the documents, he is not forbidden from doing so. He can release them at any time.
Transparency about the state voucher program helps assure the public that school quality, not political influence or other factors, was the primary factor in deciding which schools could participate.
If the Department of Education is acting in the best interest of the public in implementing the voucher program, then why does White feel the need to hide documents relating to the program from public view?
With few exceptions, the Louisiana Public Records Law requires that documents generated by state and local governments should be open to the public. But White’s department has refused to release documents requested by The Associated Press, claiming a “deliberative process privilege” cited in two court rulings that have nothing to do with education issues. That’s a specious legal argument, we believe, but White’s department can use ample taxpayer-funded resources to defend this secrecy from court challenges. This is, ironically, the kind of bureaucratic intransigence that advocates of school vouchers claim to disdain.
Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, had this to say in defending White’s approval of spending on public relations: “The Department of Education has an obligation to inform the public about changes that impact public education.”
In refusing to release records involving the state’s voucher program, White has ignored that obligation.