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New law protects teacher evaluations from FOIA requests
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/15/2010 12:11 AM

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Headway on the state's quest for millions in federal education dollars came at the expense of public access to records this week.

The legislation, which was shuttled to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk after a 48-4 Senate vote Wednesday, moves to tie public schoolteacher performance evaluations to student growth.

Yet those evaluations - along with those of principals and school administrators - would be exempt from release to the public under Freedom of Information Act requests.

One suburban lawmaker sponsoring the legislation said the exemption was a necessary compromise.

"(The unions) were all at the table. They're going to ask for things. We didn't want to stop the legislation," state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, said. "Negotiation is what it's all about."

A leading Illinois media umbrella organization is both disappointed and offended.

Part of the federal stimulus package, Race to the Top will award $4.35 billion to states that plan to make educational reforms and improve student achievement. Illinois intends to apply for more than $500 million.

States are awarded contest points for various ways they plan to implement reforms. One of those ways is connecting student growth to teacher and principal evaluations.

School and teachers unions supported the legislation, provided that evaluations were exempted from Freedom of Information Act Requests.

"Evaluations are very complicated documents and they're easily misread," Naperville Unit Education Association President Dave Griffin said.

The exemption comes less than two weeks after a new law broadening the scope of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act went into effect.

"I can see the concerns that other public entities have as far as why aren't these FOIA-able," Chapa LaVia said. "But this is going to open up a whole world of possibilities for Illinois students."

Despite being involved in the writing of the FOIA legislation, the Illinois Press Association learned about the exemption to the law only after it had passed.

"A courtesy could have been extended to us to let us know what was coming," government relations director Beth Bennett said Thursday.

"We're reasonable people. We would have been more than happy to sit down and try to craft a middle ground. ... We're just very disappointed."

The Illinois Education Association, which had lobbied for evaluations to be kept confidential for all public employees, moved from supporting the legislation to a neutral stance because it applies only to teachers and administrators, not other school employees.

"We are concerned because of the limitations regarding evaluations," IEA director of communications Charles McBarron said.

Quinn plans to sign the legislation Friday morning in Chicago.