The Education Ministry must release the school-by-school results of the national Meitzav achievement tests, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. It thereby accepted an appeal by a group of Jerusalem parents who wanted the test scores to gauge the effectiveness of their children's schools.
In a dramatic ruling, former Supreme Court Vice President Justice Eliezer Rivlin wrote that a public authority cannot withhold information from the public because it believes, in paternalistic fashion, that it would be better for the public not to know it.
Rivlin ruled that students and their parents should decide what is best for them, and the Education Ministry is not permitted to interfere in these decisions by barring the release of information on the assumption that this will produce the decisions the ministry would prefer. He therefore ordered the ministry to release the results within 30 days.
Meitzav is a Hebrew acronym for "measures of school effectiveness and growth." The tests, administered every two years to elementary and junior high school students, measure achievement in math, English, science and technology, and reading and writing in the student's mother tongue.
The appeal was filed by 13 parents, the Movement for Freedom of Information, and the Hila group for equality in education, after the Jerusalem District Court rejected their petition for release of the Meitzav results on a school-by-school basis. The Education Ministry argued that if it published the results for individual schools, this would lead principals to resort to illegitimate means to artificially inflate the test scores, and would also lead socioeconomically strong families to transfer their children to schools with higher scores.
But the Supreme Court panel, which included Justices Edna Arbel and Yoram Danziger, said the parents' request did not meet the criteria for being an exception to the Freedom of Information Law. Rivlin also said the lack of trust the Education Ministry was thereby expressing in its teachers and principals had no basis, and if there were marginal instances of improper interference with the tests, the ministry would have to find other ways of dealing with it.
In general, the court said, the argument that public criticism will discourage those performing a given task from doing so properly is not a valid one, since public critiques are both proper and desirable, and in fact constitute the heart of the democratic process. No state authority can try to evade criticism by hiding its failures from the public, the justices said.
Rivlin also denied that publicizing the results would increase the gaps between schools, since school registration is determined by place of residence. Moreover, he said, it's possible that publicizing the results will shatter social stereotypes and reveal that the quality of education in neighborhoods and towns considered weak is actually high.
In any case, he continued, deciding where to live is an individual decision, and the Education Ministry is not permitted to try to influence it by hiding information that's meant to be available to the public.
Arbel added that to the degree that publishing the results increases competition among schools, "To my mind this will bring about an improvement in learning and higher grades. Access to this information allows the public to evaluate the respondent's [i.e. the ministry's] efforts to reduce gaps between different schools."
Such transparency, she said, "will strengthen the public's faith in the education system."
Attorney Alona Winograd, director of the Movement for Freedom of Information, welcomed the ruling, terming it "an important and dramatic achievement. The ruling expresses in the clearest and most incisive fashion what the movement calls the need to 'switch disks.'"
"It's about time the authorities understood and internalized some basic assumptions regarding anything that has to do with the public's right to information," she added. "Without the sharing of information, our basic right to monitor and criticize the authorities is undermined."