Reason #1 to Pick a New State Superintendent: FERPA Violations
Well, friends, we’ve reached the end – of the countdown. Not the race for state superintendent. And certainly not for the blog. No, this goes on no matter who wins the election. I could certainly use a little break though.
As I’ve counted down my top 20 reasons to elect a new state superintendent, I have found some glaring omissions. Based on page views, I definitely think many of you would have rearranged the list.
For example, the post introducing the list has the most visits. That makes sense; it’s been on the blog longest. Second-highest, though is the #5 reason: Fabricating Special Education Percentages. I don’t know if it’s because my audience doesn’t like it when Barresi just makes stuff up or because we collectively flinch when special education students are getting a raw deal. Every problem we’ve had with testing has been felt harder by that student group. Most of the students impacted by mandatory retention are on an IEP. Even my post this morning, which was little more than poor judgment by someone barely out of college, fired people up.
In fact, the 26 months in which I’ve been blogging confirm what I’ve always known about those of us who actually work in education. We are compassionate people who do not stand for anyone mistreating our students.
That’s why the number one reason why we need to pick a new state superintendent goes back to an event from two years ago this month – the SDE releasing names of students making appeals to the State Board of Education in order to graduate.
The issue lingering with me is the fact that the SDE posted student records online. I understand making students and/or their parents sign a FERPA release so that state board members can go into executive session and examine student records. That does not mean, however, that it is either legally or morally permissible to do so. An SDE spokesperson with about 17 months of institutional memory defended posting the information saying there is a “longstanding precedent” to make information available to the board also available to the public.
While the intention is good, there is also a line that needs to be drawn. Not all records the board reviews in closed session carry the same degree of sensitivity. Across the state, school boards often go into closed session to discuss sensitive matters involving students or personnel. Most of those boards rightly post an agenda item vaguely referring to that student or employee. Here’s an example of an Oklahoma school district that managed to note what was being discussed regarding a student’s appeal of a suspension without making the details of that student’s life known to the world.
As it should be.
At the best, this was a misinterpretation of the Open Records Act. Perhaps something more sinister was happening. The former high level employee who called Tulsa-area superintendents “dirtbags” was not reprimanded by Superintendent Barresi. It is also noteworthy that the feud between Broken Arrow (which originated many of these student waiver requests) and Barresi was made public when she accidentally hit the “Reply All” button on an email. Surely the release of student records wasn’t clumsy. Hopefully it wasn’t done as a deterrent to discourage future appeals. And it certainly wasn’t retaliation. What was it then? Simply inexplicable.
That was back when I thought one of my posts being shared 17 times on Facebook was a big deal. To me, this was the epitome of what’s wrong at the SDE, and with Barresi. She doesn’t understand special education. Or testing. Or people. Or procedures. Or instruction. Or finance. For as much as she proclaims the LNH Scholarship to be the best thing going, she sure doesn’t show special needs students respect.
I did give the SDE credit the next time they had student appeals to discuss. They actually learned from their mistake. They still haven’t reached proficiency, but they showed growth. Three weeks later, they were reeling from the appeals.
I wasn’t the only one who wrote about that. So did Diane Ravitch. So did Parents Across America. And Education News. Their actions also bothered at least one legislator from Superintendent Barresi’s own party. There’s no other way to say it: releasing student records publicly has disgraced the SDE.
Here we are three weeks later, and people are still mad about it. They should be! I know some members of the board have already asked questions, and I expect they will continue to. Barresi is one of a breed of education reformers who like to extol the virtue of accountability. Well somebody needs to be held accountable for what happened. Whether through design or incompetence, the public forum created by the legislature for students to appeal for a high school diploma turned into an embarrassing circus. Students were bullied. Excuses were made. And somewhere, in the time and distance, nobody forgot that any of this happened!
This agency, under Barresi’s direction, squanders opportunity after opportunity to lead. Rather than capitalizing on the momentum from the 2010 election and effectively pursuing the agenda that got her elected in the first place, she – along with her top staff – insist upon steering the ship directly into the iceberg. Regardless of whether you’re for her or against her – embracing her reforms or resisting them – you have to admit that the performance of the SDE has been consistently disappointing.
We found out last week that this really was a pattern of behavior. Earlier that year, the SDE had released names of special education students to the Barresi campaign. From the Tulsa World:
The mother of a special-needs student says State Superintendent Janet Barresi violated the privacy rights of her child and others receiving state-funded scholarships to private schools by providing their names and home addresses to her campaign for re-election.
The woman said she kept her concerns to herself for two years at the request of Joel Robison, Barresi’s chief of staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, but a new Barresi television campaign ad reignited her anger over the experience.
Barresi’s ad features a recipient of the state-funded Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships and accuses her GOP primary rival of “conspiring with education bureaucrats” to prevent other special-education students from obtaining the scholarships.
The mother of one such recipient said that in March 2012, her then-seventh-grader received an envelope in the mail from Barresi’s campaign.
Inside was a letter signed by Barresi to scholarship parents offering up to four tickets to an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game, plus T-shirts, and an opportunity to shoot baskets and high-five the players as they entered the court.
I’m sure that was a neat experience for the children, but releasing the names of LNH Scholarship recipients to the campaign is crass. Having this effort as part of your campaign itself is crass. Again, we see that students – especially special education children – are only a prop to our state superintendent.
In response to this report, the SDE confirmed that the incident had happened, but blamed it on two former employees.
Phil Bacharach, spokesman for the state Department of Education, provided a written statement saying, “The staff members who were involved are no longer with the department, so the best I can offer is that the State Department of Education helped coordinate the Thunder game offer on behalf of organizations that wanted to do something nice for families with special needs children.”
He added that “no privacy was breached.”
When pressed, Bacharach said no student list ever left the Education Department’s office and that former general counsel Lisa Endres and events coordinator Ashley Hahn had sent the invitations after hours but mistakenly in campaign envelopes rather than Education Department envelopes.
Way to drop the bus on two people you don’t have on the payroll anymore!
Student information – regarding an IEP or anything else – is confidential. There’s no excuse for breaching that. There’s no excuse for having your campaign envelopes up at the agency, either.
The last 42 months, simply put, have disgusted me. Tomorrow, I’ll do a wrap up post with about 10 things that didn’t even make the list – either because I forgot about them initially, or because there just wasn’t room. I hate it when people implore you to do something for the children or claim that they’re acting for the children. It’s a phrase that’s trite and saccharine and usually false. This election – starting Tuesday with the primary – is FOR THE CHILDREN. They’re the ones in the schools that our policy-makers continue to defile.
I never intended this blog to be all about Superindentist Janet Costello Breezy Schedule J Barresi. Hopefully soon, she’ll be relegated to the status of a minor character in the narrative.
The choice is yours. Go forth and vote, #oklaed.