New Bill Would Subject Charters to Same Transparency Rules as D.C. Public Schools

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2019.
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On Wednesday morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led a press conference for a bill he will introduce next week, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. This bill would bring D.C. charter schools under the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools, and comes on the heels of the DC Public Charter School Board proposing its own transparency reforms for the charter school sector. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have joined Allen in co-sponsoring the legislation.

Allen’s new bill would subject all D.C. charter schools and their boards of trustees to public records requests and open meetings laws, and require that the DC Public Charter School Board help individual charters comply with these new rules. The charter sector currently receives more than $800 million in taxpayer dollars annually.

“This is not exactly a cutting-edge idea,” said Allen on the front steps of the Wilson Building. “Thirty-nine states already include both our traditional and public charter schools under their open government laws. D.C. is frankly playing catchup with the rest of the country.”

He pointed to California, where just earlier this month, the state’s new governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests. Allen also pointed to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which both endorse charters complying with these rules. Last month a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that D.C’s charter sector was unusual on this front compared to the rest of the country.

Allen said one of the most common arguments he hears from charter schools is that complying with FOIA would be a significant administrative burden. In light of this, he wrote into his bill that the DC Public Charter School Board would serve as a resource to help individual schools handle requests, and the legislation would also require the PSCB to report to the Council how many FOIA requests were received by individual charter schools, and how much it cost them to comply. Allen emphasized the bill could be adjusted in future years if schools do in fact encounter major challenges. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re respecting that concern and understanding that,” he said.

As it stands now, the DC Public Charter School Board is not being flooded with FOIA requests. Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, according to the city’s annual FOIA report, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, eight processed in 16 to 25 days, and two processed in over 26 days. The total cost for the agency to comply with FOIA requests last year was $22,600.

Other items in Allen’s bill include requirements that a charter school’s annual report include the amount of money donated by anyone who contributes more than $500, that schools publish all employees’ names and salaries, that each charter school include two teachers on its board of trustees, and that a student representative serve on the board of a charter high school or adult learning charter. Lastly, the bill would require a charter’s annual report to list all contracts awarded by the school, regardless of amount, as is required for D.C. Public Schools.

The bill was developed in close consultation with EmpowerED, a D.C. teacher activist group, which has been leading, over the last nine months, a campaign on public school transparency and increasing teacher, parent, and student voice in school decision-making. In January, EmpowerEd launched an online petition to bring charters under the same transparency requirements as D.C. Public Schools, which as of Wednesday had garnered 545 signatures. Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerED, says the majority of those signatures have come from D.C. charter school teachers and charter school parents.

“Nothing in this bill should be controversial,” says Goldstein. “Far from being a burden, community engagement is what makes schools stronger and more sustainable.”

Allen’s bill is likely to face opposition from some leaders in the charter school sector.

Last month, Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter advocacy group, testified before the Council against the kind of measures proposed in Allen’s bill, and defended the level of transparency currently existing in the charter school sector.

Josh Henderson, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, tells City Paper that Allen’s bill “prioritizes paperwork over performance” and notes that D.C.’s charter sector is “already one of the most tightly regulated, and importantly, highest-performing in the country.” He says he hopes the Council will focus on issues like mental health supports and suitable facilities, “rather than adding additional layers of bureaucracy.”

DFER DC, Henderson adds, would support new measures like the Council requiring charters to hold at least two open meetings per year, “including the meeting at which they set their budgets and any meeting that would close, shrink or otherwise reconfigure a school’s campuses.” He also says his group would support requiring charters to report data about teacher tenure and attrition, which is currently only reported on a voluntary basis.

Education Committee Chairman David Grosso was not at the press conference and his spokesperson says Grosso does not have any comment on the bill at this time.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who announced in late December that he would be joining Grosso in leading oversight on the Education Committee, tells City Paper that he understands charter schools are not in support, and that he plans to “look at the bill carefully and understand why we have always treated the charter schools differently.” He says he does worry that FOIA can be a burden on agencies, noting that the amount of money the Council had to spend on answering FOIA requests jumped significantly last year.

In 2015, some local advocates tried to push for greater charter school transparency measures, but charter leaders successfully blocked their efforts, and the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act included only modest reforms. Allen said at Wednesday’s press conference that he’s hopeful the Council will have a hearing and pass this bill, and he hopes even more co-sponsors will join them in the next few days.

The DC Public Charter School Board, meanwhile, has been deliberating on some of its own transparency policy changes. The PCSB first opened its transparency rules to public comment in December, and extended the comment period for another month given the high volume of feedback it received. In February during the extended public comment period, this reporter submitted a comment in favor of bringing charters under FOIA and open meetings laws, and publishing board meeting minutes online.

On March 18, board members will be voting on the DC Public Charter School Board’s proposed transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students. Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s so-called Transparency Hub, which launched last April.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, calls Allen’s legislation “misguided” and says it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board.” Pearson criticized the bill for not addressing issues like closing the achieving gap, reducing the number of students living in poverty, or reducing truancy.  “We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students,” he says. “We urge the D.C. Council to include parents, local board members, students, and school leaders in this process.”

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