National Council on Teacher Quality sues Board of Curators

The lawsuit could help MSA create a syllabus archive.

Casey Purcella / Graphic Designer

A dispute over syllabi access resulted in a lawsuit between the UM System Board of Curators and the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The NCTQ requested the curators release syllabi and other documents in order to evaluate how well schools of education, including those in the UM system, are training teachers, NCTQ Managing Director Arthur McKee said.

Curators provided the NCTQ with most of the necessary documents but excluded syllabi.

The NCTQ responded with a lawsuit against the curators. The court reviewed the case on Dec. 15 and the official trial is scheduled for March 1. The basis of the lawsuit is Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

According to section 610.011 of the Missouri Sunshine Law, “All public records of public governmental bodies shall be open to the public for inspection and copying.”

As a state-funded institution, the UM system must comply with the Missouri Sunshine Law.

According to a response by Robert W. Schwartz, chief of staff and the custodian of records, to Mary Schultz, the NCTQ’s lawyer, the UM system released documents necessary for the evaluation but excluded course syllabi because they are copyrighted.

According to NCTQ’s petition to the court, the denial is contrary to the public access obligations and requirements of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

The NCTQ will use the syllabi for research, not commercial use, and syllabi would be uploaded to a nonpublic, secure database, according to the court documents.

“The University of Missouri claims (syllabi are) intellectual property and copyrighted by professors and is not subject to the open record law, but they are both public documents and intellectual property,” McKee said. “Just like a library, we can see them but not copy them for our own use.”

The NCTQ is a nonprofit organization with executive offices in Washington, D.C., advocating for reforms in teacher policies. Beginning in the spring, it will release the annual NCTQ Teacher Prep Review, published by the U.S. News & World Report.

“We strongly believe, in order to have good teachers, held in high esteem, who are successful for kids and successful as trained professionals, they need the best training,” McKee said.

The NCTQ evaluates teachers’ training by reviewing schools’ textbooks, syllabi and other documents, which are public information.

The NCTQ made requests beginning Oct. 31, 2011 to MU. It followed with requests to UM-Kansas City on Nov. 3, 2011, UM-St. Louis on Nov. 3, 2011, and UM-Rolla on Dec. 13, 2011.

On June 29, 2012, Schultz requested a response from the curators by July 5, 2012.

According to section 610.023 of the Missouri Sunshine Law, if a request for information is denied, the denial must be justified within three business days of the initial request. Failure to do so waives any exemption.

The curators did not respond until Schultz’s requested date of July 5, 2012, more than eight months after the first formal request.

“The University’s failure to provide the requested syllabi (or, indeed, any records whatsoever for more than eight months) to the National Council on Teacher Quality, after receiving correspondence identifying reasons the syllabi were public records not exempt from the Sunshine Law demonstrates it never had any intention of complying with the Sunshine Law,” the court petition stated. “Instead, it erected a barrier to thwart meaningful access to the University’s public records.”

The UM system schools are not the only schools conflicting with NCTQ. Approximately 600 out of the 1400 schools being surveyed are denying access to documents for full evaluation, McKee said. The main reason for denial is syllabi are intellectual property.

Similar lawsuits have been filed against the University of Wisconsin and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, according to The University News at UMKC.

If a governmental body is found of knowingly violating the Missouri Sunshine Law, the court could impose civil penalties, including all attorney fees, according to section 610.027.

The NCTQ and the curators could still settle out of court, McKee said.

If the case is taken to court and the NCTQ wins, the Missouri Students Association could be affected.

MSA has discussed creating a syllabus archive for years, Ben Levin, MSA chairman of Academic Affairs said. The idea never produced results because Faculty Council and MU administrators were not willing to hand over syllabi, saying syllabi are intellectual property.

“My sense after speaking with faculty is that teachers are willing to (release their syllabi),” he said. “There are just a few holdouts who feel their syllabus is intellectual property and don’t want their syllabi released to the general public.”

Gaining access to the syllabi could benefit students, Levin said.

“Syllabi give students an excellent chance for students to see what a class will be like without having to be there,” Levin said. “That’s an opportunity every student should have.”

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