As a parent, you have the right to request records from public schools. These kinds of records can include school curriculum, budgets, reports, memos, emails, and other compiled documentation.
Parents should be aware that the foundation of state public records laws lies in the principle of open and transparent government, which is essential in our constitutional republic. While many people are acquainted with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), they may not realize that each individual state possesses its own public records law. These laws govern state and local authorities including government agencies, departments, cities, towns, school districts, and other entities conducting public business or receiving taxpayer funds. Often, state public records laws encompass a wider scope than the federal FOIA.
State public records laws exist to guarantee that the public has access to review governmental activities. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in reference to the FOIA, these laws enable citizens in a free nation to stay informed about their government’s actions. In the context of state public records laws, transparency is the norm, while secrecy is the exception. This generally results in a strong presumption that favors disclosure. If a government body argues that certain information should be withheld under public records legislation, the onus typically falls on the government to justify an exemption from disclosure. Each state offers administrative and judicial procedures for citizens to challenge public records responses that fail to comply with state regulations.
All citizens can use state public records to seek public information. These laws encourage disclosure and protect citizens who may have been denied lawful access to public information. Any parent or citizen can make a public records request to a public school – and that’s where the process starts.
In order to properly submit a public records request, you’ll need to include the following vital information:
When submitting a records request, you should always include the date of submission. This date typically serves as the “deadline” for the public organization (the public school in this instance) to carry out a reasonable search for the requested documents. By including the date in your request, you provide the school – and potentially the courts – with a clear understanding of the final date for the requested information.
Make sure to include that your letter is a “public records request” in your subject line. Include a brief description of the subject matter of the requested records.
The request should be addressed to the custodian of public records. You can usually find the name of this person or office on the school district’s website. If you’re unable to identify who is responsible for public records requests, you can contact the school or address the request to the “records custodian” at the public school or district.
Cite the appropriate public records or freedom of information statute in the first line of your request. Clearly indicate that your message constitutes a request for public records in accordance with the specified law.
The most crucial aspect of a public records request is crafting its content, which may vary based on factors such as the known existence of the records. Some general guidelines to follow include:
Determine the response deadline for the public entity in your request and monitor it closely. Numerous state public records laws prescribe particular time limits within which public entities are required to respond. Some have more general stipulations, like "promptly." Regardless of the situation, include the deadline in your request and communicate with the public entity in writing to discuss the deadline.
Fees for Search or Copies:
As someone requesting information, it's crucial to understand the fees public entities like schools are allowed to charge when addressing your request, and tailor your request accordingly. The rules concerning fees for searching or copying responsive records vary significantly across states. Some, but not all states, permit charging fees for the time it takes to locate and process a records request, and many states allow fees for copying records.
If a public entity can charge for searching and responding to a request, you should structure the request to minimize search efforts, which may involve identifying specific records or starting with a narrower request and expanding the scope in follow-up requests. Likewise, if fees apply to copying public records, you might prefer to inspect the records in person to avoid paying these charges. If you agree to pay copying fees, specify (1) the maximum amount you're willing to pay in the request and (2) that the public entity should contact you if the cost will surpass that amount.
Costs and fees might be waived or reduced for non-commercial requests or when waivers are available under the law. If the records won't be used for commercial or financial gain, mention in the request that it's for a non-commercial purpose. Additionally, some states enable requesters to seek waivers for costs and fees. For instance, certain statutes may waive costs and fees if the request contributes to public understanding of an issue of public concern. If a waiver is applicable, identify the grounds for the waiver and explain why it applies to your request.
Include your contact information with each request. This can help facilitate any modifications, refinements, or questions related to the request.
Always submit requests in writing – either by mail, email, or through an online submission portal. However you choose to submit your request, ensure there is documentation and evidence of submission.
It’s a good practice to submit the request in letter form so the subject matter is clear and it can be attached as an exhibit if you ever need to appeal a denial or seek to compel production. If you submit by email, draft the request in letter form and attach a PDF of your letter to the email submission.
If the submission is required to be sent via an online portal, always ensure you receive written confirmation the request was received. Consider preparing the request in letter form and attaching it to the online submission or mailing it separately.
After receiving a response, it's essential to carefully examine it to determine what has been provided, what has been withheld, and the reasons for any withholding.
If responsive records were supplied, verify that the provided materials match what was requested.
If documents were entirely or partially withheld, meticulously identify the withheld items and assess the reasons for withholding them. In general, if a part of the request is denied, the public entity should state the grounds for the denial, including any claimed exemptions. Usually, the assumption leans towards disclosure, and the public entity must prove the exemption's validity if they claim one.
If you want to contest the public entity's response, review the appropriate appeal procedure. State statutes frequently require requesters to first appeal the denial of a records request administratively — either through the public entity that denied the request or a third party like the state attorney general's office. Deadlines for appealing a denial are often strict. Review the appellate processes and ensure that any appeal is submitted to the correct authority and filed promptly.
If it seems that your public records request was denied contrary to state law, please submit a case to the Goldwater Institute via the form linked below.
Include the records request, the public entity's response, and any correspondence with the public entity in the form.
Every citizen has a right to ask and receive public information from the government — that includes parents asking for public records from school districts.
Parents have the power to hold their public schools accountable. They can use public records laws to find out what their children are being taught, how their school is keeping their children safe, and how the school is spending money. Parents across the country are taking action and are asking their schools — you can too.