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A big victory for government accountability

Empower Wisconsin | Sept 21, 2020 

MADISON — Empower Wisconsin is proud to be part of a victorious lawsuit that holds the state Department of Public Instruction accountable and brings greater transparency to government. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sued DPI alleging that the agency violated state law when it released partial data on Wisconsin’s school choice programs to a select media list ahead of a September 2019 public release.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Bennett Brantmeier on Friday mostly agreed. His summary judgment ruling includes a permanent injunction to prevent DPI from violating state law that says data on Wisconsin’s school choice programs must be released “all at the same time, uniformly, and completely.”

WILL sued DPI in November on behalf of School Choice Wisconsin, Empower Wisconsin journalist M.D. Kittle, and WILL Research Director Will Flanders. Empower Wisconsin and Flanders had sought the information. Kittle was on the press call that occurred the day before the information release, although he was told by a DPI official that he was sent the conference call information by mistake. Kittle told the DPI official there was no mistake. 

Brantmeier ruled that DPI’s actions violated state law by providing press with early access and by releasing incomplete data on Wisconsin’s school choice programs. The judge declined to restrict the state Superintendent’s ability to comment on the data it releases but emphasized that DPI remains bound to release full data sets on equal terms to all Wisconsinites.

At the time, DPI grouped the test scores of all Wisconsin choice students together in its press release, failing to factor in the differences in Wisconsin’s three parental choice programs, the lawsuit notes. Parental choice programs in Racine and Milwaukee enroll students at higher poverty levels than the statewide choice program, which has a disproportionate impact on achievement. 

“The Court’s decision affirms that DPI violated state law by releasing partial school choice data to select members of the press. This decision ought to remind state agencies and unelected bureaucrats, once again, that they are accountable to state law,” WILL Deputy Counsel Lucas Vebber said in a statement. 

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, called the ruling a “great win for transparency.” 

“The statutes require DPI to be an honest broker when releasing academic data on the Parental Choice Programs. This court victory shows that DPI was being selective in their release of data to drive a biased narrative and that they are prohibited from doing so in the future,” Bender said in the statement. 

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