The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned an earlier lower-court decision that would have required the Virginia Department of Education to make public teachers’ names and the performance data of their students.
The decision comes after a years-long legal fight between Lansdowne parent Brian Davison and the state education department. Davison took VDOE to court in 2014 after his request that Loudoun County Public Schools release Student Growth Percentile scores by school and by teacher was denied. Several groups, including LCPS and the Virginia Education Association, filed petitions to intervene in the case, citing concerns that the information would unfairly target teachers whose students show low progress rates.
Loudoun administrators have cautioned against using the SGP information to assess a school’s or a school district’s quality of instruction. It only tracks students’ progress in math and reading in grades 3-8, and does not account for students who take alternative Standards of Learning exams, students who are new to Virginia or those who have transferred schools.
Davison, a parent of two Loudoun students, has said the scores are a better indicator of students’ year-over-year progress than Standards of Learning scores and they would help administrators identify the division’s most effective teachers.
In April 2016, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Davison, and said that VDOE must release the scores, and the names of the schools and teachers tied to them.
But that was reversed by the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday. The court ruled that Virginia code makes “teacher performance indicators” confidential. “Therefore, the circuit court erred in ordering the production of these documents containing teachers’ identifiable information,” Judge Cleo E. Powell stated in her opinion.
The opinion also requires the Richmond Circuit Court to reconsider its previous ruling to require VDOE and Loudoun County School Board to pay Davison $35,000 to cover attorney’s fees and other costs. That decision ultimately rests at the circuit court level. The opinion states that, if any party should cover Davison’s fees, it should be VDOE, as the custodian of the records, and not the Loudoun County School Board. “The circuit court must reconsider whether to award attorneys’ fees and, if so, the appropriate amount,” Powell wrote.
After the ruling Thursday, Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston wrote in an emailed statement, “This is a huge win for our members.”
When the Richmond Circuit Court’s ruling initially fell in favor of Davison in 2016, he said he planned to publish the information on his “VirginiaSGP” Facebook page. He said he would not identify students but would consider masking teachers’ identity. “But other members of the public can analyze the data themselves to discover who those teachers are,” he said.
Davison is in several other legal fights, including one with county Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and another with Loudoun County School Board members. In one case, a federal judge ruled that Randall violated Davison’s First and 14th Amendment protections when she temporarily blocked him from her official Facebook page. Randall has appealed that decision.
In a similar case, a second federal judge arrived at a different ruling. Judge Anthony Trengasided with the School Board members who had blocked Davison on Facebook, dismissing all counts in the case. Davison is appealing that decision.
The rulings hinged on whether an elected official’s Facebook pages could be considered public forums of speech, and in their rulings, both judges drew from the same court precedent to arrive at different answers.