Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Another performance of Much Ado About Nothing

We talk a lot about civility in public discourse and, of course, there's a certain amount of judgment in what is civil and what is not. I, for one, would hate to see writers lose their distinctive voice through fear of offending. In my mind, civility is more an art than a science; more a collection of principles than a set of rules.

One of the principles ought to be a strong presumption that people who disagree with you aren't dishonest or evil. They usually will have a reason for thinking the way that they do even if you disagree with that reason.

This principle was recently violated - strongly and pervasively - by the reaction to School Choice Wisconsin's request for student directory data from certain school districts outside of Milwaukee and Racine. (Full disclosure: I and my colleagues at WILL represent and work with SCW on a variety of matters. It is one of the most professional policy and advocacy shops to be found.)

Some of our friends on the left lost their composure and behaved as if SCW had done something heretofore unknown and legally questionable. Some argued - the lack of grammatical prose and logical rigor made it hard to tell - that SCW or schools participating in the choice program or some other folks would or could use the information for a variety of criminal purposes.

First, it is absolutely clear that school directory data is not confidential. If you doubt this, let's read the law. Sec. 118.125 says that "directory data may be disclosed to any person" provided that parents or guardians or are aware of the type of information that has been designated as directory data and told them that they have fourteen days to object to its disclosure. Second, this is not some scary or nefarious or unknown provision of the law. It allows basic student information to be made available to people who might offer opportunities and services of potential interest to students and their parents. Camps, sports programs, colleges - all have legitimate reasons to contact families and families may well have an interest in hearing from them. Third, what SCW wanted to do - and will be doing - is perfectly consistent with the law and that purpose. It wants to make parents aware that the school choice program has been expanded to their area and tell parents how, if they are interested, to learn more. This is about as threatening as a letter from a drum and bugle corp or a local college.

This is why SCW was willing to amend its request at the request of the Green Bay School District. It didn't have to (and wasn't necessary to do so), but it could because all it wanted to do is send postcards to parents directing them to its website if they wanted to learn more about the program. SCW was not interested in a fight, it was interested in providing families with information and, to its credit, the Green Bay district agreed.

Could someone abuse a request for directory data? It's possible but this is not a new provision in the law. It was there in 1985 when, as  a young lawyer representing the West Allis-West Milwaukee school district, I supervised the production of district records in a school desegregation case. If anyone has ever misused the law, I am not aware of it.

So the "story" was a nothing burger. It should have been easy to see that, but when you begin, as some people do, with the assumption that people you disagree with - say proponents of educational choice - are bad people, it's easy to miss the obvious and end up in the fever swamp.


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