When Sean Strain got involved in leadership at his children’s middle school, he asked for data on how children from low-income homes performed on state exams.
School staff said that wasn’t available. But he pressed the question with top officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and learned that it was. Detailed breakdowns on test performance are public records, available for all public schools in North Carolina.
This is Sunshine Week, an annual event in which journalists across America promote access to public information. In Mecklenburg County it coincides with a groundswell of interest in education data and school board meetings, fueled by the CMS board’s controversial student assignment review, a looming superintendent search and planning for school bonds.
Strain, who has four children in CMS, is among a group of parents who have pulled public records on test scores, demographics and magnet programs to draw their own conclusions about how the board should approach student assignment.
“Have a go. Pull some of the data. What does it really mean?” Strain said recently. “That’s where my journey started.”
Citizen access to public data lets people do their own analysis of crucial issues, such as the complex relationship between school demographics and academic achievement. It has also led to quick detection of errors in CMS reports and, yes, my own articles.
I’m old enough to remember when getting public records meant going to a government office to collect piles of paper. The good news is it’s much easier now. CMS and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction post a lot of helpful data online.
The challenge is that those sites are so complex that finding what you want can be like searching for one face in a crowd.
In honor of Sunshine Week, here’s a user’s guide to public education records.
CMS hot topics
The starting point for all things related to CMS is www.cms.k12.nc.us.
The district has created pages for the high-interest topics, including student assignment, the superintendent search and budget and bonds. Look for them under “Spotlight.”
The student assignment review page includes links to all the background data the board has gotten, current boundary maps, several years of enrollment data and the formal request seeking proposals from potential consultants who will help the board craft a plan.
The superintendent search page has a similar request for information from search consultants, as well as a report presented at a recent special meeting that was held in the middle of a weekday without the public notice required by law. There’s also video of that meeting and others related to the search.
The state compiles mountains of data on all public schools. The starting point is www.ncpublicschools.org.
School report cards, located at www.ncpublicschools.org/src/, provide data on test scores, graduation rates, average class size, school safety, college enrollment, teacher qualifications and turnover and many other items. You can check and compare any district or school in North Carolina.
The presentation has been outsourced to SAS, which means it’s visually sophisticated and complicated to use. The main page includes several links on how-to videos, plus the warning that the site doesn’t work on iPads, iPhones and iPods and may require installing a browser that supports Adobe Flash.
For those who prefer old-school data dumps – big spreadsheets that let you do your own sorting and analysis – the Department of Public Instruction website has that, too. But it can be tough to navigate. Here are some pages I’ve bookmarked:
▪ For test scores: www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting.
▪ For data on school crime, violence, suspensions and dropout rates: www.ncpublicschools.org/research/discipline/reports.
▪ For enrollment, including breakdowns by race and sex: www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/accounting/data.
▪ For financial reports, including per-pupil spending: www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/resources/data.
Charter schools, which don’t report to local districts, are public, which means information on the state site is available for them, too.
In addition, the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, posts information that includes applications and a directory of charter schools by county and name. Find that at www.ncpublicschools.org/charterschools.
While most information about public education is available to the public, there are a couple of exceptions that can prove frustrating.
Most information on individual students is confidential. That means that while you can find aggregate data on suspensions and offenses at your child’s school, for instance, you cannot find out what kind of punishment the student who got into a fight with your child received.
And most information in personnel files is private. Exceptions are spelled out, including names, positions and salaries.
About those salaries: Any citizen can request that information, but schools and districts are not required to post it. The Observer compiles salary lists for a range of public bodies, which are available at www.charlotteobserver.com/news/databases. And yes, it’s time to get started on the 2016 update.
School districts must also release the most recent “promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in position classification” on employees, but details about what led to disciplinary actions are confidential unless the school board determines that release is “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board or to maintaining the level or quality of services provided by the board.”
That means reporters and citizens alike often hit a wall trying to get details about school employees who have been accused of misdeeds. Even in a high-level case such as the 2014 forced resignation of Superintendent Heath Morrison, the board opted to sign a confidentiality agreement rather than disclose details of the investigation that preceded his departure.
Even after exploring these links, you may want more information.
To make a public records request from CMS, call 980-343-6243 or send a written request to CMS Communications, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., Fifth Floor, Courier 836, Charlotte, NC 28202.
The state has a “Let’s Talk” link in the left rail of its main page that includes a button to file records requests. If you don’t use the Internet, call the public information office at 919-807-3450.