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Law hiding teacher data sends wrong message

Here's what could happen under a bill pending in your Legislature:

Say the infamous former teacher Debra Lafave applied for a job tutoring your kids.

Say you wanted to check out her background.

The school system could not give you "personal identifying information" about her, including even her name or her employment status. (Okay, unless you've been living under a rock, you know something about Lafave, but you get the idea.)

Ditto, under this legislation, if you wanted to check out your kids' teachers, principal or even the school board members you elected, as well as those working at community colleges and public universities.

Should this pass, an employee's name, Social Security number, address, employment status, phone number and photo will remain confidential. And lawyers I spoke to interpreted the language of HB 409 to mean school districts would have a tough time releasing any information about an employee, since even someone's name and "employment status" would no longer be public record.

When you live in a state with a reputation for presuming you have a right to know what's going on in your government, reaction to this should be:

What?

What's the motivation here? The bill contends that school employees hand out discipline, and that this information could be used to stalk, harass or harm someone in retribution.

It should go without saying that no one wants that to happen, but it seems a red herring — fear-baiting, even — since laws against those acts already exist, including increased penalties when the victim is a school employee.

Another potential motivator for this and related bills: A Lakeland man requested public information on school employees and their dependents across Florida. (He told the Times last year this was "a civics lesson" about public information and that he didn't intend to sell or distribute what he sought.)

Less irksome exemptions in the bill would shield health and benefit information regarding employees, their spouses and children. Not all exemptions are evil, or even created equal, and it's hard to argue against one for keeping kids out of it.

But government-in-the-sunshine enthusiasts are understandably alarmed by the sheer breadth of the larger legislation.

"This is the bazooka approach when we should use a peashooter," says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.

About those school board members who also would enjoy protection, even when they willingly ran for public office.

Imagine if this passes and certain other elected officials realize they too might find a way to keep information from public view. This could be what lawyers call a "slippery slope," a road we do not want to take when we already have a pretty good idea what can happen when government starts to go secret.

Imagine, too, important news stories thwarted when reporters can't look at who's in charge at our schools.

Good ideas are pending in the Legislature, serious ones for serious times. This one seems a wrong-headed approach: keeping information from a public that deserves to know who's teaching their kids.

Law hiding teacher data sends wrong message 03/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 8:39pm]
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