Louisiana Department of Education sues two educators over public data queries

By Carol Ostrow | Jun 15, 2016

BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) recently sued educators James Finney of Baton Rouge and Michael Deshotels of Zachary over repeated requests for school data.

College math instructor James Finney, who regularly attends state and local board of education meetings, made 50 requests for public records between September 2015 and April 2016, while educator and blogger Michael Deshotels made additional queries on his own. 

The department provided partial data to Finney and Deshotels, but omitted information that, it argued variably, is protected by federal law, and that it lacks or that simply doesn’t exist.

To make his point clear, Louisiana Education Superintendent John White filed separate suits in Baton Rouge against both men, asking for a judge in the 19th Judicial District of Louisiana to rule that the department has complied with all state and federal laws.

According to the lawsuits, some material cannot be made available because of federal privacy laws under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), stating that “state educational agencies must suppress data that include students’ socio-economic status, disability status and English-learner status.”

Furthermore, states one suit, White did respond fully to Finney — by furnishing what he asked for or by giving reasons for not complying. It asks for the court either to rule that the education department is not obligated to create the material or, alternatively, to assess a fee for every record retrieved.

Finney called the suits “groundless, unnecessary and against the public interest.” Having asked repeatedly to meet with White and/or his staff “to work out arrangements that allow the public to have access to important public records without compromising student privacy (or) causing the Department undue burden,” he said, “I have consistently been rebuffed.”

“I believe the Department of Education does have the data and is unwilling to comply for strategic reasons,” Finney told the Louisiana Record. “I consider the lawsuits filed by John White to be frivolous.  We intend to present a vigorous defense and assert all applicable rights.”

Finney wanted scores for several standardized tests along with the relevant raw data. His multiple attempts to obtain information may have raised a few eyebrows among the authorities, but he says the truth is that he is essentially linear-minded.

“I am … an applied mathematician with an interest in analysis of large data sets, and transformation of seemingly large and complicated problems into comparatively simple and straightforward problems,” he said. 

He wanted to examine data as a parent of three children who attended public schools—all graduating from McKinley High School—and as “a supporter of a free and appropriate publicly funded education for every child.” 

Reiterating that his end game is “for the public to believe that school performance scores are being calculated fairly and accurately,” Finney, who is represented by Christopher Show of Pierce and Shows in Baton Rouge, said, “I would suggest that Mr. White should be asked why he is so reluctant to share those data.

Michael Deshotels plotted a path parallel to Finney’s. Having asked for statistical data that he believes cannot be traced to individual students, Deshotels said that the LDOE is currently pursuing action against him despite four previous conflicts all having been resolved in his favor — most recently in 2015 when the East Baton Rouge Parish Court ordered LDOE to pay Deshotels’ legal and court costs, fees for his lawyer J. Arthur Smith III, plus per diem fines — totaling well over $10,000.

Some educators believe it is a violation of privacy to supply the public with information that conceivably could be used to isolate students by name, Deshotels said. 

 “In a recent deposition, we asked them to tell us how that would be done or to give us an example of how to identify an individual student – and they couldn’t give an example, he told the Louisiana Record. "It’s really a stretch.”

Why the suppression, then?

“It’s intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to examine records,” Deshotels said. “I think it is actually intended to frustrate… . I’ve been very careful not to throw a large number of requests out there unless I had a specific issue. If I request information on the number of graduates in a particular school system, usually that means that I’m questioning whether the school system really produced that percentage of graduates.”

What he discovered did not sit well with LDOE.

“We found that the recovery district in New Orleans was falsely identifying some students as transfers — to out-of-state or home schooling — when they were really dropouts,” he said. “They were not legitimate transfers, (but) they don’t count against the school’s calculated graduation rate and funding.” 

“If the graduation rate falls below a certain level, it’s in danger of being closed down by the state—and the administrators making money off that school might lose their source of revenue,” Deshotels said “They think it’s in their best interests not to allow us to find out the truth about the dropouts in those schools because that makes them look bad.”

Deshotels, a former chemistry and physics instructor at Zachary High School, served as executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators before retiring. Now an independent blogger, he pursues research in the public interest and to keep current with current educational issues.

“It just so happens that I publish a regular education blog based on research and statistics that may not agree with the typical party line of the state Department of Education,” Deshotels said. “Sometimes it’s critical of their work and their results. And I think that’s one reason that they don’t want the records to be examined.”

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19th Judicial District Court Louisiana Department of Education

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