Freedom of Information in Action
Freedom of Information in Action
Frequent visitors to our website may know that transparency has long been a priority of DC PCSB. We were the first to publish discipline data in 2012. We brought Equity Reports to the city in 2013. We developed the Financial Analysis Review back in 2011, allowing the public to better understand schools’ financial statements and health.
Our website contains more than 96,000 pages of information, which can be hard to navigate. Every year, we receive many requests for information that is already publicly available on our website. To simplify things, we pulled that information together in our Transparency Hub. Included in the Hub is information on school budgets, audits, at-risk funding usage, school calendars, charter goals, and much more.
In addition, we are also in the process of establishing a transparency policy. Since not all stakeholders intuitively come to our website when searching for school-specific information and, when schools make material changes to documents mid-year, the posted version on our website can become outdated. This new policy will require schools to publicly post certain documents to their own websites so that they will be able to make corrections to documents on their websites as needed.
Still can’t find what you are looking for? The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is here to help! The Freedom of Information Act was designed to allow the public access to any record in possession of that body. You may not know that as a government agency, the DC Public Charter School Board is subject to DC’s FOIA law. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, parents, and teachers. Any record in our possession is subject to FOIA, including any documents submitted to us by schools. We are not able to provide documents that are held exclusively by the schools themselves.
Some freedom of information requests are very simple and can be completed in under an hour. The largest requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours. While each request can be handled differently, most follow the same process.
First, we send the requestor an acknowledgment letter soon after we receive the request. If we’re not sure what a requestor is asking for, we’ll always contact the requestor to clarify before responding. We also reach out when a requestor provides expansive search terms that result in many responsive documents. Working with requestors to narrow broad requests to target the information they actually want allows us to provide a final response more quickly. We then begin a search of our file and email systems for documents responsive to the request.
Sometimes we know exactly where documents are stored, but often we need to run a keyword search and/or consult with relevant staff members to locate all responsive documents. We also check with the relevant staff members to see if they’re aware of any additional documents that might be responsive.
We then review every responsive document and apply redactions when necessary. This is where FOIA in the education space gets tricky. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, ideally with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data is accidentally released.
Certain kinds of sensitive information are shielded from release under the statute. These are called exemptions and are designed to protect privacy interests covering a wide range of information. Most applicable exemptions fall into one of four categories, the most common being protection of sensitive student data:
- Individual student information protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- Invasive personal information about DC PCSB employees, school employees, students, parents, and other private citizens
- Deliberative government documents and documents covered by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work-product privilege
- Certain information received from private entities doing business with the government or public charter schools, provided that the release of the information would cause harm to the entity
Once we have finished our review and made redaction, sometimes after hundreds of hours of detailed review by multiple people, we provide a final response to the requestor. If there are a large number of responsive documents, we may provide our response in batches, sending each batch of documents once our review is complete. The shortest responses may be only a few pages long and the largest responses can be hundreds of thousands of pages.
Making school operations more transparent and accessible to the public continues to be our goal. We look forward to continuing the conversations about making our public charter schools more transparent to ensure families have the information they need to make the best choice for their child. For more information on DC open government, please visit https://www.open-dc.gov/office-open-government.