PRM updates: Common Core, health program audits

Public Record Media has several Freedom of Information (FOI) projects underway at present.  The following updates relate to our most recent FOI work.

“Common Core” project

The set of K-12 educational standards known as “Common Core” has become controversial since its announcement in 2010. The standards were originally crafted by the National Governors Association, with funding provided by several private foundations. The federal government has since encouraged adoption of the standards by linking them to federal “Race to the Top” grant dollars.

Supporters of the initiative maintain that the standards will help to improve student performance and competitiveness.  Criticism of Common Core has come from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, with liberals suspicious of the influence of business-affiliated foundations on curriculum development, and conservatives resistant to what they view as an attempt to create a national educational template.

The Common Core standards (and related curriculum) have been adopted by forty-four states throughout the nation.  Minnesota has partially adopted the standards, but only in relation to their English language component.

Request to Minnesota Department of Education

In June, PRM made a data request to the Minnesota Department of Education for correspondence regarding the Common Core initiative, as well as related matters.

PRM’s request seeks to determine whether Minnesota has evaluated further state participation in Common Core programming.  Through the same request, PRM is also seeking to determine the extent to which Minnesota student data is shared with the federal government in exchange for federal grant support.  Documents on student data sharing with private entities are also sought.

Legislative Auditor – audit contracts

In 2012, the Minnesota legislature passed a law requiring bi-annual audits of the state’s public health care programs.  Such programs are paid for by state and federal dollars, and administered by non-profit Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

The 2012 law assigned responsibility for conducting the audit to the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA), and also required OLA to retain an outside, third-party vendor to conduct the audit itself.

Since the program audits are scheduled to begin with the 2014 calendar year, PRM filed a data request with OLA to obtain records related to its selection of a vendor to conduct the health care audits – including signed contracts and responses to RFPs.

OLA response to data request

OLA responded quickly (with, incidentally, the fastest response time we’ve seen to date), and produced both its RFP for the audit vendor, as well as an audit program description.

OLA staff withheld other data, however, on the basis of Minnesota Statute 3.979, which governs data held by the Legislative Auditor.  The statute allows OLA to withhold “data related to an audit” until a particular audit has been completed.

While PRM understands the need for confidentiality in ongoing audits in order to facilitate independence, we differ with OLA on the definition of what constitutes confidential “audit data,” at least in this regard:

When the Legislative Auditor contracts with an outside party to perform an audit, PRM believes that the responses of parties to RFPs – as well as any signed contracts – are public data under existing state law. Such data precedes the existence of an audit, and is thus outside of the purview of Minn. Stat. 3.979.  From an oversight standpoint, such information should be available to allow the public the opportunity to understand the identity and qualifications of any outside firm retained to perform audit work for OLA.

PRM has sought a data practices advisory opinion from the IPAD office of the Minnesota Department of Administration regarding the requested data.  Watch this space for additional developments.