The state Department of Education will no longer suppress any student enrollment data relating to economically disadvantaged and English proficiency students as part of the settlement of a lawsuit the agency and its chief filed against two education activists who had lodged numerous public records requests for the information.
One of the activists, retired educator and former Louisiana Association of Educators executive director Michael Deshotels, declared Wednesday's settlement a "decisive victory" for the rights of citizens seeking public records.
"Now because of this landmark ruling it is my sincere hope that the letter and spirit of the Public Records Law will be complied with and no further lawsuits will be necessary," Deshotels said.
State Education Superintendent John White said the ruling merely resolved what had been a conflict between two laws.
"The federal government told the Department not to make available student enrollment data that could be used to personally identify a child," he said Thursday. "State law, on the other hand, tells the Department to disclose all public records. We asked a state judge for guidance on state law, and we received it."
Education activists James Finney and Mike Deshotels have proven to be thorns in the side of …
Education Department attorney Joan Hunt told members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in an email Wednesday that the department had sought a declaratory judgment from state District Judge Janice Clark because there was "tension" between free disclosure of public records according to Louisiana law and protection of student information according to federal law.
Hunt, in an email Wednesday to BESE members, said Clark's ruling "provides the Department the clarity it sought." Hunt said the agency "will comply with the ruling immediately."
The Education Department agreed Wednesday to three stipulations which settled the state court suit filed in April by White and the department against Deshotels and James Finney, a local technical college math instructor.
One of the stipulations, read into the court record Wednesday by Clark, states that the suppression of data in the economically disadvantaged and English language learner or English proficiency sub-groups of the Education Department's multi-stat reports is not in compliance with the Louisiana Public Records Act.
The department agreed in a second stipulation not to suppress student enrollment data in responding to requests made under the act.
The final stipulation says data regarding the economically disadvantaged and English language learner or English proficiency sub-groups will be made available to the public dating back to 2006.
Deshotels maintains the motivation behind the declaratory judgment filed against him and Finney was never about clarifying the legal issues relative to certain public records and student privacy.
"I believe it was purely an attempt to discourage citizens from seeking to independently research the claims and conclusions made by White and his staff," he said. "If citizens are forced to face legal challenges and high legal fees for seeking public records, the Department can continue to manipulate and spin what should be factual information about the operation of our schools."
In the past, Deshotels and Finney have sought records relating to Louisiana's K-12 testing and accountability system; Recovery School District data; voucher program enrollments and costs; voucher student demographics; and charter schools' enrollments, charters and leases.