A conservative legal group is suing the state Department of Public Instruction over how the agency released testing data in September.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming DPI violated state law when it provided testing data on voucher schools to members of the media a day before it was publicly released, denied WILL’s research director from receiving an advance copy of the data, and framed voucher school results in a “misleading” manner.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, claims it was a “deliberate attempt to shape the news narrative of the assessment results so as to make public schools appear in a more positive light and choice schools appear in a more negative light.”
WILL claims the department violated a state law that requires certain data on voucher schools, such as test results and enrollment numbers, be released “at the same time, uniformly, and completely.”
In a statement, DPI said it followed the law when releasing the testing data, and an advance copy was provided to the media “simply to allow them lead-time to write their stories, including in-depth print articles.”
The state operates four programs that provide taxpayer-subsidies — commonly referred to as vouchers — to income-eligible families for their children to attend private schools.
The lawsuit stems from DPI providing embargoed testing data to news reporters on Sept. 11 — a day before the information was publicly released — under an agreement the information would not be published until after midnight of Sept. 12.
Will Flanders, the research director for WILL, was denied an advance copy of the data or access to a conference call with DPI officials on Sept. 11 during which reporters could ask questions on the testing results, the lawsuit said.
By offering advance information about voucher schools to reporters, the lawsuit claims, DPI unlawfully provided information to the public in “piecemeal” fashion and not at the same time.
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The lawsuit also claims the manner in which DPI released voucher school information resulted in “misleading” statistics on the performance of those schools “to shape the stories that the news media wrote about the data.”
DPI provided reporters an advance copy of an eight-page news release with information on testing results and charts comparing the testing proficiency of all students, public school students and all voucher school students — the last category of which combined students in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide voucher programs.
A full breakdown of the voucher school results became available on Sept. 12, the lawsuit said.
Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for WILL, said it wouldn’t be misleading to compare data from private school students using vouchers to public school children. But the comparison, he said, is obfuscated when the results from the three programs are combined because they have different income-eligibility requirements and enrollment caps.
The lawsuit claims the Legislature put in place the release requirements for voucher school data because lawmakers knew DPI was “frequently hostile to the school choice programs.”
On Sept. 11, DPI provided reporters full data sets for the Forward Exam, Dynamic Learning Maps, ACT Aspire and ACT assessments for the 2018-19 school year, which broke down results by categories such as school district, grade level and race.
Test results from private schools participating in the voucher programs were not included in the advance data set.
DPI spokesman Benson Gardner said in an email DPI released the advance data sets for public schools at the request of reporters and intended to do the same for voucher schools, “but due to miscommunication, only the public school data was provided.”
LoCoco said WILL is asking the judge to bar DPI from releasing advance voucher school data.
The lawsuit lists DPI and state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor as defendants. WILL, School Choice Wisconsin, Flanders and Matt Kittle, who is listed in the lawsuit as a reporter for the conservative website Empower Wisconsin, are plaintiffs.