A FOIA status update

So I’ve committed what must be the first cardinal sin of starting a blog. That is, I started this, posted a few things, and then vanished for a week. There are two reasons for my absence over the weekend.

First, I was on vacation [1].

Second my FOIA strategy with regard to the textbook study has been more successful than I could have imagined, and I’ve been completely buried just trying to stay afloat. Indeed, yesterday was the first time I can recall in my life when I had 100 unread emails.

When Jason Becker suggested this idea, I was more than a little skeptical. Nevertheless, I had 3,014 FOIA letters printed and mailed out on Friday. They started arriving over the weekend, and I’ve already obtained more than 8 times as many responses in two days as I had in the previous three months (both on the website and via email).

One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that there are several types of responses to the request:

1) Send over a list right away, no questions asked. These districts either must have had a list handy or have had the ability to cobble something together pretty quickly. This is about 30% of respondents so far.

2) Ask for an extension on the 5- to 10-day window I offered in the letter. These districts presumably think they can get the information, and are willing to do so, but didn’t have a list handy. This is about 55% of respondents so far.

3) Deny the request outright, claiming no documents exist that describe districts’ textbooks. This is about 10% of respondents so far. About half of these denials are polite and abrupt, while the other half are nasty and threatening (e.g., we don’t have anything, but if you want to dispute you can reach our lawyer, and also we’ll charge you $XX an hour to produce the results). Of course I’m not letting them off the hook that easily, since I simply don’t believe that districts don’t have either purchase orders or school board minutes describing textbook selection.

4) Any of 1-3 combined with some griping about the process. This is about 5% of the respondents so far. The most typical gripe is that districts are overwhelmed with these kinds of requests and that this is an abuse of the system. I’m actually quite sympathetic to this argument, and I would obviously have preferred simply obtaining the information from the state. But as we’ve discussed, this isn’t possible. A related gripe is that there is not capacity in the district central office to obtain this information. I find this either terrifying (that a district central office (in a district with four schools) doesn’t know what textbooks are used) or hilarious (as in, a hilariously bogus excuse). One of these districts simply requested I email each of the individual school principals, which of course I’ll do.

In any case, it’s been a challenging but highly productive few days responding to these responses to my textbook FOIAs. By my count we’re at somewhere around a 15% response rate now, so quite a ways to go. It’ll be a long summer.

[1] Highly recommend Kiawah Island, South Carolina, as a destination.


2 thoughts on “A FOIA status update

  1. Thanks for the mention.

    I wonder, who did you address the FOIA request to? I think it’d be interesting to see how often a Chief Academic Officer or curriculum lead type role responds versus a Chief Financial Officer or purchasing/budget analyst.

    My guess? Superintendents and CAOs can’t be bothered most places, but content leads could rattle this stuff off without a second thought. CFOs/budget people could find the information very quickly but are never asked.

    And the worst case? All FOIA requests end up in research/data/IT which is not the right place for this kind of request.


    • Good question. These emails were hand collected by a cadre of USC undergrads. They were told to look for district CAOs or directors of C&I, but many places don’t have those positions or don’t list them. So probably half of the respondents (especially in small districts) are supes.


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