Teacher evaluations: State asks court to ‘compel’ districts to turn over assessments

Releasing teacher evaluations "breaches  breaches the confidentiality our teachers anticipated," Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, wrote the court.

CT Mirror file photo

Releasing teacher evaluations “breaches the confidentiality our teachers anticipated,” Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, wrote the court.

The top lawyers for the state are asking a Superior Court judge to “compel” seven of the state’s lowest-performing school districts to turn over individual teacher evaluations so they can prepare for a trial set to begin this fall over whether the state is properly funding education.

The Connecticut Education Association — the state’s largest teachers’ union — and education officials from the districts are balking at the request.

“The CEA has always understood teacher evaluations to be highly sensitive and confidential,” union President Sheila Cohen, wrote in a signed affidavit to the court on March 3.

“To allow these evaluations to be disclosed, even in redacted form, and without consent of teachers breaches the confidentiality our teachers anticipated,” wrote Cohen.

The state’s Office of the Attorney General in February asked the court to compel Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New London, Norwich, Plainfield, Waterford and Windham to turn over the evaluation of every teacher these districts have employed since 2010.

The state is being sued by a coalition of school boards, teachers’ unions and parents from these districts and the attorney general’s office argues they need these documents to defend against claims that these districts fail to provide “highly qualified teachers.”

“We are clearly entitled to defend against these allegations and the teacher and administrator evaluations are relevant,” Assistant Attorney General Eleanor M. Mullen wrote the attorney for the coalition suing the state.

The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that the fundamental right to public education under the state Constitution guarantees students the right to a minimum qualitative standard and “suitable” educational opportunities. The Supreme Court returned the case for trial to the Hartford Superior Court to determine whether the state has met that standard and, if not, what remedies should be ordered.

The teachers’ union and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding coalition — which represents the plaintiffs in the case — responded to the state’s request for teacher evaluations citing state law, which specifically exempts these performance records from being disclosed.

“Disclosure of evaluations to anyone would defeat the legislative intent to preserve the integrity of the evaluation process,” which is to help teachers improve, David Rosen, a New Haven-based attorney wrote the court earlier this month.

“Teachers may have taken different measure to challenge parts of the evaluation process had they known that these evaluations would now be made available… Ordering the production of teacher evaluations pursuant to a civil discovery request would set a dangerous precedent,” wrote Cohen, the head of the teachers’ union.

School officials from the districts asked to provide the documents wrote to the court to share similar concerns, as well as to outline how burdensome complying with such a requirement would be. They report they have turned over 100,000 pages of documents requested by the attorney general’s office so far covering the last 12 years,  including school climate surveys, any newsletter or brochure the district has created, all studies relating to preschool, and budget documents.

But when it comes to their refusal to release the evaluations, the attorney general’s office said they must turn them over.

“The Districts have not pointed us to any authority establishing a statutory or constitutional right of teachers and administrators to shield their evaluations from discovery in civil litigation,” Mullen, the assistant attorney general, wrote the court.

This request is timely not only in relation to the Sept. 9 trial date, but also in that the districts across the state are in their first year of rolling out a controversial new teacher evaluation process mandated by the state.