Politics & Policy

The Data Destroyers

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
Government fears accountability above all.

A few weeks ago, the California education department did a peculiar thing: It scrubbed historical data about standardized-test scores from its public DataQuest website. This being a government agency, it immediately began to lie to the public about why it had done this.

California law forbids using comparisons between different tests to set policy or evaluate programs. This makes sense: If last year 40 percent of students received 85th-percentile ratings on a standardized test and then this year 70 percent of students received 85th-percentile ratings on a different standardized test, it is likely that the radical difference is in the test, not in students’ performance. The law, however, says not one word about making historical test-score data available to the public or suppressing that data.

Naturally, California then cooked up a new lie: The data hadn’t been deleted at all, the education department said, simply moved to another part of the website. That might be technically true, inasmuch as the data was no longer available on the section of the website where — get this — historical data about test scores is published; the department says it was still made available to researchers. That’s one definition of public service: making it more difficult for citizens to access information about their government, obstructing informed democracy, and being a general pain in the Trump.

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All that was really required was an asterisk. California is changing its standardized-testing practices to bring itself into alignment with Common Core standards. The results from the new tests will not be comparable to the old ones on a point-by-point basis. What actually seems to have happened here is that the California department of education was worried that the old data and the new data would be used to make invalid comparisons. Which is to say, the people who run California’s schools have put forward the self-indicting thesis that Californians are too stupid to understand the issue.

They should know.

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The belief that you rubes can’t be trusted to handle your own information, gathered by your own government, is all too common, as is the destruction of documents and data for narrow political purposes. No serious person (and from that category we must exclude David Ignatius) believes that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s e-mail scandal is the result of anything other than Herself’s willful avoidance of oversight and accountability, or that Lois Lerner’s e-mail whoopsy is anything other than a naked ploy to keep her and her colleagues out of the federal penitentiary where they belong. Even the inspectors general in the federal agencies — the in-house watchdogs who are supposed to have free access to basically everything in order to prevent financial and ethical shenanigans — are routinely stymied, a bad habit that has intensified under the Obama administration. IGs trying to determine whether the Peace Corps mishandled sexual-abuse cases and the extent to which the EPA improperly suppressed internal communications sought by investigators were blocked by the Obama administration, which has invented out of whole cloth legal justifications for doing so. We have the National Park Service, for Pete’s sake, invoking national security in refusing to cooperate with investigators.

What are they hiding?

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Some states have done better. In Texas and a few other Republican-dominated states, conservative reformers have succeeded in putting the state’s checkbook online — not just some vague summary of appropriations, but the actual transactions, how much went to whom and when. And that’s a good start. But the fact is that with narrow exceptions for genuine national-security concerns, as opposed to Yogi Bear national-security concerns, and ongoing criminal investigations, all of the public’s information should be available to the public, not after an FOIA request and delays and hearings and rulings and appeals, but as a matter of course.

#related#There are costs to openness. Radical openness will cause embarrassment and inconvenience and hard feelings. But the costs of secrecy are far higher. They are high in Sacramento, in Washington, and in Benghazi, among other places.

Some canny Republican 2016 contender really ought to consider running as the candidate of radical openness in government. With Herself and her Nixonian secret e-mail system and ever-evolving lies about the same on the other side, the contrast would be pronounced.

And it’s the right thing to do, which is always nice.

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