Hearing on Charter Fiscal Transparency

Tomorrow, October 14, the education committee of the DC Council will hold a hearing on proposed legislation for charter fiscal transparency.

The proposed legislation came about in response to a desire for the charter board to oversee charter school fiscal management in the wake of scandals at several DC charter schools (Dorothy Height Community Academy and Options).

The legislation touches on charter schools that use private companies to manage them and defines conflicts of interest in those dealings.

It seems like a great idea–for starters. According to one report, the legislation would implicate only three charter schools in DC run by for-profit companies.

More importantly, the legislation doesn’t touch larger issues that arise regularly in discussions of how charter schools are perceived and understood as public entities. In DC, for instance, the Open Meetings Act doesn’t apply to charters. (Which may be why this writer has fruitlessly searched for video of a charter parent association meeting from May–and perhaps why no minutes of what was discussed then exist publicly.)

There have also been calls for increased sunshine in charter management and operations well beyond scrutiny of private management firms. For instance, some charters have not been responsive to FOIA requests, because they are nonprofits and thus not legally required to respond. (This appears to contradict the assertions of local charter advocacy organizations like FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools that charter schools are public schools.)

Lack of data from DC charters is also a transparency issue. The PERAA report made clear that data on learning conditions and teacher quality in DC charter schools is not publicly available–with other charter data publicly available only through a paywall. Recently, the DC charter board refused to release charter graduation data. When the board relented, the data showed that the charter graduation rate had dropped nearly 7 percentage points across the sector.

Some have proposed a sunshine law that would require all DC charter schools to disclose information in the same manner as DCPS–while also providing a right of action for any member of the public to sue for such information whenever it is not disclosed.

Yet others have questioned whether the DC charter board is really in a position to adequately monitor what happens in its schools except by reactivity and school closure, an extreme circumstance that is not only costly, but also disruptive.

Given how relatively few (unpaid) school stakeholders show up to testify before our council, perhaps our representatives could avail themselves of studies that outline what public sunshine and accountability to the (taxpaying) public might look like for charter schools.

Happily, with school choice held as a central tenet of DC charter success, it is parents availing themselves of that choice who stand to benefit the most from public sunshine for our charter schools.

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