One Take on the Charter Fiscal Transparency Hearing

Not everyone makes it to council hearings. The education committee hearing on October 14, for a bill on charter fiscal transparency, was a case in point.

Only two members of the education committee attended the hearing (Grosso and Allen). They were joined part of the time by at large council member (and wannabe ed. committee member) Elissa Silverman. Of the witnesses, only a few were parents of current students, and none were current teachers or students.

Maybe that lack of attention was an artifact of the legislation being so focused on a small part of charter accountability–in this case, oversight of charter school management by for-profit companies.

But most of the hearing’s 3 hours was spent not delving into the legislation, but outlining what more oversight of charters would entail. Committee chair David Grosso seemed taken aback, reminding everyone several times that the legislation was crafted with a very specific intent, while noting that too much oversight can put a “burden” on schools and that it is important to keep charters “nimble.”

Among the items raised:

–A data warehouse for all public schools by fall 2016, as promised by the School Reform Act, which created charter schools in DC in 1995.

–A proposal from a large and diverse citywide group of education stakeholders, C4DC, to strengthen accountability for all charter schools, including allowing the DC auditor to audit all charter schools; having charter schools be responsive to FOIA; having the DC Ethics Act and Open Meetings law apply to DC charter schools; using a common budget reporting system for both charter schools and DCPS (including personnel and capital categories); and ensuring charter facilities allocations are accounted for precisely.

–FOIA and other sunshine laws that charter schools in DC are not obliged to follow as nonprofit, nongovernmental entities. Parent witness Martin Welles suggested that either DC has a unified school district or charters be responsive under FOIA if they receive taxpayer money.

–The extent to which charter schools are public bodies and/or government agencies and thus subject to a variety of open meetings laws, financial disclosure statutes, and FOIA. Witness Fritz Mulhauser of the DC Open Government Coalition noted that several states have financial disclosure requirements for charters and that the national charter advocacy organization, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, even has a model statute for charters that calls for charters to follow all state freedom of information requirements. Yet another witness, Cathy Reilly (executive director of S.H.A.P.P.E.), noted that the DC code itself makes explicit that charters are not public schools–an interesting coda to the recent Washington State Supreme Court decision, wherein that state’s charter schools were deemed not public schools because they have only an appointed board, not a publicly elected one as called for by their state constitution.

–The need for sunshine in decisions regarding siting and expansion of charter schools.

In his testimony, charter board head Scott Pearson warned that it was “extremely burdensome” for the charter board to reply to every FOIA request, as the board itself is subject to FOIA. He also noted that there is plenty of information contained online for each charter school–to which council member Charles Allen replied with a plaintive yelp that “we’re supposed to have public information!”

Given how few parents (and council members) were present at a hearing concerning one aspect of an annual expenditure of more than half a billion DC tax dollars, the council clearly needs to hear more, not less, about accountability.

The council could start with a parent who submitted written testimony, noting that without transparency over how public funds to DC charters are managed, her most direct way to hold her child’s charter school accountable is to move her child to another school.

That parent concluded that the school’s board, the charter board, and the council itself are similarly hampered in their oversight.

The deadline for written testimony is October 28.

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