In New York, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had anchored his eight years of public school overhaul on marketplace solutions that relied heavily on test scores and school report cards to drive curriculum and policy. His administration had spent a total of $3.6 million to collect teacher value-added data over three years. Last year his department had released the teacher ratings to The New York Times—with school names and teachers’ names blacked out. This year, before he left to join Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation as a $4.5-million executive, Klein was prepared to release everything. The national mood had shifted.

On October 20, reporters from the Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, GothamSchools.org, NY1 television, and WNYC public radio found themselves in an awkward spot. Some were so angry at what looked like a blatant attempt by the city to use reporters in its fight with the UFT that they quietly threatened to quit if their editors insisted on publishing names. Others were torn between the power of the data to inform—who are we to second guess readers’ ability to process all this complexity, they asked—and their power to distort. On top of all the other distortions, the skeptics pointed out, the tests used to calculate these evaluations had been found to be flawed. The state had been forced to recalibrate the results because the tests had become too easy to pass.

The next day, reporters took a collective breath. The union filed suit in New York State Supreme Court, claiming the rankings were riddled with errors that would unfairly harm teachers. “Just because it’s a number,” the union’s lawyer, Charles Moerdler, argued later, “doesn’t mean it’s suddenly objective.” Nothing would be released until the case was settled.

The delay allowed time for news organizations to compare notes. On Thursday evening, October 21, many of the reporters found themselves at a midtown Manhattan bar, sharing drinks with the same teachers union and Department of Education staff they had encountered in court earlier. The occasion was a farewell party for New York Times education reporter Jennifer Medina, who was moving to the paper’s Los Angeles bureau. A guest from the union parked his oversized protest poster—displaying the city’s confounding-looking mathematical formula for value-added numbers—against the bar. The debate from the courtroom spilled over into the festivities. School reps shrugged off complaints, reminding reporters it was they who had filed Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for the data. Weren’t they in the business of printing information?

But the Department of Education had privately dropped hints to some reporters that their competitors had already submitted foils, some journalists countered. Suspicions had been raised when the department responded to the foils with uncharacteristic speed. Normally, such requests took months, with layers of negotiations, said Maura Walz, a reporter for GothamSchools.org, an independent online news service. This time, it was service with a smile. “The Department of Education wants this out,” said Ian Trontz, a New York Times metro editor. “They have a lot of faith in these reports. They believe they are trustworthy enough to educate and empower parents.”

Still, empowering parents had not seemed to be a top goal in the past for this administration. To the most skeptical reporters, it appeared as if the city was using them.

Public schools may be revered as engines of our democracy, but Americans have never agreed on who should govern them or what they should teach. In the 1950s, the Cold War stirred America’s anxiety that its schools were too soft to compete. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement elevated equal opportunity as the decade’s school reform banner. President Lyndon Johnson signed the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which directed federal dollars into public schools where children lived in high concentrations of poverty. The federal Coleman Report issued the following year found that a child’s family economic status was the most telling predictor of school achievement. That stubborn fact remains discomfiting—but undisputed—among education researchers today.

LynNell Hancock is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and director of the school's Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism.