Justice Denied…

*

Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light
; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

Does the truth come to light eventually?  Are perpetrators eventually exposed and punished, or at least publicly humiliated?  When the alleged offenses involve government agencies and officials, the law is on the American people’s side.  The federal Freedom of Information Acts of 1966 and 1967 (and subsequent legislation in 1974) make most federal government documents a matter of public record, with exceptions for material that is national-security related, personal, private or ‘deliberative.’ All 50 states and the District of Columbia also have public records laws or their own version of FOIA which allow members of the public, including reporters, to obtain documents and other public records from state and local government bodies.

The District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act specifically allows agencies and departments to police themselves.  So, for example, reporters who want to examine documents involving the District of Columbia Public Schools must ask DCPS, which then decides whether or how to honor the request.

The expression “Fox guarding the chickens” may pop into your mind at this point, but my experience with DCPS for nearly two years involves some combination of incompetence, foot-dragging and duplicity. More about that in a minute.

The truth about school cheating is emerging in other cities, including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.

Even in Washington, DC, which remains the epicenter of official denial, we know for certain that, despite her denials, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was fully aware of the cheating allegations. For this revelation, we must thank Jack Gillum{{1}} and Ben Nuckols of the Associated Press.

Here’s a link to the emails (.pdf).

What’s particularly revealing is the spin suggested by the PR department.  Tell everyone that the dramatic test score increases are the result of hard work, experience, and great ‘structures’ and ‘implementation,’ the PR lady advises Henderson.

Please explain by saying the new principal has empowered the leadership team, including the SAM coach, to be data driven and instruction focused.  The coach has a stronger role this year than she has had during the past two years. She knows the model well and has been able to move fidelity much quicker this year.
About Noyes – even though there is a new principal and coach, the staff has had two years under Wayne (Ryan) and a strong SAM coach so they continued the implementation with support from the Program Coordinator.
About Simon – as the SAM coach said, “I finally get it.  We have worked for two years to put structures and procedures in place so  now we can see the results and focus more on instruction.

But the AP’s success notwithstanding, the District of Columbia continues to play fast and loose with the truth and the law, when it comes to releasing public documents having to do with the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures on DC’s standardized tests that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure, 2007-2010.

Perhaps Shakespeare is right and ‘truth will come to light’ eventually, but it isn’t easy for it to emerge when one party, in this case the Democrats, control all the levers of power. And it’s even more difficult when the Mayor, the City Council, the current Schools Chancellor and the city’s leading newspaper do not have any real interest in knowing whether principals and teachers received hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeserved bonuses, or whether hundreds of children were inappropriately promoted or denied remedial attention, or whether their school system’s dramatic improvement was a hoax and a lie.

We began seeking the facts two years ago. That’s when Producer Mike Joseloff and I filed our first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the District of Columbia Public Schools. We were–and are–seeking correspondence between Rhee’s chief data person and the outside expert she hired to review test data showing widespread erasures on the District’s standardized test during Rhee’s first year on the job.

Between that March 2012 letter and today, we have filed several dozen requests, which were denied or dismissed, and subsequent appeals.

How seriously did DCPS consider our request for email between Rhee’s data person and Fay “Sandy” Sanford, the outside consultant hired to review erasure information between October 1, 2008 and March 1, 2009?  Did DCPS follow the letter and spirit of the law?

Here are five examples. You decide.

1.  In November 2012 it informed us that no communication could be found. On appeal, however, we learned that DCPS searched only in 2008.  The Mayor’s General Counsel directed DCPS to search again.

2. Which it did, again turning up nothing.  This time, however, it searched for the words “Sandy AND Sanford” and “Fay AND Sanford,” but not his email address. Did the searchers expect those words to appear in an email address, or were they designing the search so it would prove inconclusive?   On appeal, the Mayor’s General Counsel ordered DCPS to search again.

3. In May 2013 DCPS misspelled the email address it was supposed to be searching for.

4. The law requires DCPS to act expeditiously, but on one occasion DCPS allowed six months to elapse between our request and its response, even though the Mayor’s Deputy General Counsel had ordered DCPS to resume its search.

5. On July 5, 2013, DCPS reported that it could not find any electronic communication between McGoldrick and Sanford.  Why?  Because, believe it or not, DCPS reported that it had searched “within the subject line,” not the address or CC lines!

Again we appealed, and in August the Mayor’s Office told DCPS to take another look, this time in the right place.  Lo and behold, this time DCPS found more than 400 emails.

Is this a track record of incompetence, foot-dragging or duplicity?  Should the people in charge be held accountable for breaking the law or fired for incompetence?  Neither has happened apparently, because I am still communicating with the same people today that I began writing to two years ago.

Only once in nearly two years has the District released the requested material in a timely fashion, Sanford’s invoices for about $200,000 in consulting work.

When DCPS informed us in December that it had ‘found’ 430 emails from the period we requested, it released only 276.  About 99% of those it released are group emails, where either DC’s data person or the outside expert were among the recipients. Most are trivial, such as this note from the business manager.

Subject: Great News
Sandy,
Today, I spoke with our accounting department and they explained to me that your check will be issued and mailed to you on March 9, 2010. If you have any additional concerns, please contact me.
Thanks,
BWP

And DCPS sent us a few like this:

What the public is entitled to read are the other 154 emails, correspondence which we believe include communications between DCPS’s Erin McGoldrick and Dr. Sandy Sanford regarding his review of the erasure data.  We believe these may shed more light on just how much Chancellor Rhee knew of the strong likelihood that some of her principals were responsible for the erasures, including men and women she had just given bonus checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, DCPS seems to have redacted every piece of one-to-one email correspondence between Ms. McGoldrick and Dr. Sanford that occurred between August 2008, when State Superintendent Deborah Gist first informed Chancellor Rhee of the suspicious erasures, and January 30, 2009, the date of Sanford’s confidential memo warning DCPS that the evidence pointed to widespread erasures by school principals.

The DCPS FOIA statute allows material that is personal or ‘deliberative’ to be withheld, but are we supposed to believe that all the email between the two during that time was either ‘deliberative’ or ‘personal’ in nature?

It is simply not credible to assert that the two did not correspond, because we know that Sanford routinely sent McGoldrick his invoices, which we have acquired through FOIA.

1. Sanford billed McGoldrick for $13,387.50 for work done between August 21 and September 7, 2008.
2. Sanford billed DCPS for an additional $5,397.50 for work done between September 21 and October 20, 2008.
3.  He billed DCPS for $5,737.50.50 for work done between October 8 and December 31, 2008.
4. In November 2008, Sanford traveled to DC for 5 days of work at DCPS, for which he was paid $6,000.
5. McGoldrick brought Sanford to DC  on January 26th, 2009, for 5 days, work which culminated in the confidential memo.

It is noteworthy that none of these invoices specify the nature of the work. That is a striking contrast to Sanford’s later invoices that describe in detail the ‘professional development,’ ‘new teacher orientation,’ or ‘principal training’ Sanford provided.  It seems reasonable to suspect that their emails would have touched upon the analysis he was doing.

We know that McGoldrick relied heavily on Sanford and would have turned to him for guidance on the erasures.  In his 4-page confidential memo he addresses several aspects of the problem, including its substance, the implications of the public becoming aware of the problem, the possible legal challenges if DCPS attempts to ‘claw back’ bonuses awarded to principals and teachers, and strategies for delaying OSSE.  Did McGoldrick delineate those tasks?  What did she say when she informed him of the problem in the first place, or when she sent him the data files? Such emails would not be ‘deliberative’ in nature, nor would they qualify as ‘personal.’

DCPS’ initial response to OSSE’s memo about the erasures was to ask for a second analysis by a second organization.  Did this suggestion come from Sanford in an email to McGoldrick?  That would not be ‘deliberative’ or ‘personal’ either.

On January 7, 2009, McGoldrick asked OSSE for an extension before reporting its findings regarding the erasures.  Did Sanford suggest that in an email?  McGoldrick’s long report to OSSE at the end of the extension, dated February 28, 2009, adopts the suggestions made by Sanford in a confidential memo of January 30, 2009 (in which he offers to help with the response). Are we to believe that the two did not exchange any emails about this delaying action?  No congratulatory emails when the probe was shelved?

Frankly, DCPS’ response to our efforts to bring the correspondence to light, which began more than 18 months ago, seem to us to be part of a continuing effort to cover up embarrassing and inappropriate behavior.  This pattern of behavior violates the spirit and the letter of FOIA and is a fundamental violation of democratic principles.  Sunshine is essential to democracy, but DCPS seems determined to keep the behavior of a key employee hidden away in the dark, an action which keeps the public from knowing the truth.

Why this matters: We know from Sanford’s memo that Rhee knew how serious the erasure situation was. We suspect that the coverup and non-investigations were carefully orchestrated as Sanford suggested, but certainly not by McGoldrick or Sanford.

Will the truth emerge eventually?  In the District of Columbia, a 1-party system makes it easy for those in power to keep the lid on, and that’s what’s happening.  By way of context, consider the benefits of a system where political power is contested, as in New Jersey:

We know a lot about the politically-motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.  Abuses of power are harder to hide when there’s a 2-party system, because 1-party rule invites abuses of power.  The New Jersey case also proves that a single subpoena is more effective than hundreds of FOIA requests.

On January 15, 2014, I filed another FOIA, this one an appeal with the Mayor’s Office. To date, the Mayor’s Office has not responded.

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[[1]]1. Jack was one of three USA Today reporters who first exposed the widespread erasures that occurred when Rhee was Chancellor.[[1]]

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12 thoughts on “Justice Denied…

  1. John I so admire you ability and grit to just keep digging. This is important for all school efforts. If denial and lying are allowed to continue the Public will not believe anything school people say and that is very sad. John Mockler

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  2. Thanks, John. You made me think of Izzy Stone and google just gave me this quote:

    “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.”

    Goodreads quoting I.F. Stone

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    • Thank you very much, Joan. I am thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath or paragraph as I.F. Stone. One of my proudest possessions (hanging on the wall in front of me) is a photograph of the two of us taken at the George Polk Awards luncheon in 1981. I received the Polk that year, and Izzy had received it in 1970. I just read through the list of previous winners and was surprised to see that he did not receive it on other occasions, especially for his remarkable reporting during the Viet Nam War

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  3. “Get over it!” That’s what a PR man whose name I will not share emailed me in response to this blog post.

    Here’s the gist of my response
    “So lying and cheating are OK? Is that what you want me to get over?
    This is part of what Chancellor Kaya Henderson said after our Frontline program appeared last January: “Ms. Cothorne claims to have reported this to DCPS. We have no record of this report. Staff close to the school and staff named in her complaint have no record of these alleged conversations.”

    That is a lie, as we now know. Not only did she know, but she and Rhee worked very hard to control and derail any and all investigations into the erasures. Yes, this was 2009, but the Rhee/Henderson approach to fixing education remains influential, not only in DC but also in quite a few other places–including the US Department of Education. And the evidence is pretty clear that this approach does not work.

    That doesn’t matter?”

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  4. But when will the truth come out that high stakes testing, which is the core of Rhee and corporate education reforms agenda, is really a form of entrapment. Teachers are threatened with loss of livelihood if they did not raise test scores even as funding is cut and no account is taken of the deteriorating social conditions their students are living in over which the teachers have no control.

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  5. It does matter. That you haven’t gotten over it shows that you believe in your heart that what happened in Washington was plain wrong. You have written extensively, with very clear evidence, that there WAS cheating, and those who could have responded appropriately, decided not to. Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson have orchestrated a great scam. And there are lots of people who are happy to go along with it, or turn a blind eye to it, because to accept the truth that there was widespread cheating in Washington DC during Michelle Rhee’s tenure, throws the entire miracle in DC story off balance. It is a little frightening that the DC miracle story was repeated by Obama himself in his State of the Union speech. It is also frightening that Michelle Rhee was recently invited to a White House dinner considering the mess she created in DC and the sham of an educational reform organization she now leads. That you and the Associated Press are still on this case is reassuring. I wonder if USA Today and Jay Mathews are still following this story.

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      • Honestly, I don’t think she will get away with it. I think you (and others) will uncover new evidence. I think someone could get the investigation reopened through a court case that challenges the non-investigations that took place.

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