Fear Of FOIA

Tomorrow, Wednesday June 26, the city council will hold a hearing on two bills, which are generally aimed at budget transparency in our publicly funded schools—most notably, for better recording and tracking of all public funds, especially at risk funds. The latter are supposed to supplement, not supplant, other expenditures in our schools, to target resources to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in our city.

(See here and here for each bill–0046 and 0239, respectively. School data expert Mary Levy has a good redline version of DC Code to show what would change with each.)

Transparency in at risk funding in DC’s publicly funded schools has been historically bad. While it has reported its use of at risk funds generally, DCPS has repeatedly not followed the law regarding use of the money. Charter schools, on the other hand, have only voluntarily reported their use of at risk money–and the incomplete reporting in available documents varies wildly, with seemingly inappropriate uses (i.e., check out the $20,000 for 5 uniforms recorded here for Digital Pioneers. I’d like to think this is a mistake–OTOH, what if it isn’t??)

To the extent that these bills would ensure greater budget clarity overall, and specifically WRT at risk funds, it would be a help.

OTOH, holding a hearing mid-2019 on these two bills is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on a rapidly sinking Titanic as a way to ensure passengers are comfortable.

Take this handy chart, from EmpowerEd, which graphically outlines some of the most obvious areas of public exclusion from our schools. But there isn’t a piece of paper big enough to outline more fulsomely how we the public have utterly NO clue what happens in our schools or their governance–by design.

Here are just some recent items:

–All videos of charter board meetings before 2018 are gone, with no back-ups. For some meetings, there are just notes, not official transcripts. Charter board staff confirmed this to me at the end of April 2019, when I tried to access video of the June 2017 charter board meeting and couldn’t find it.

–Who actually owns the building of St Coletta’s–paid for in large part by DC taxpayer money–is unclear.

–The executive director of the charter board urged the schools his agency regulates to lobby against the suspensions bill that became law and mocked the student suicide prevention act–all with the assistance of FOCUS, a private charter advocacy group.

–There are no records of outsider visits to the mayor and council, while an ed reform-supported group buys council members and staff breakfast and lunch every year, but is not registered as a lobbying organization.

–What control individual DCPS principals have over their own budgets (and buildings) appears determined by politics as well as power, with DCPS keeping two sets of books for accounting purposes. (See video of the exchange between DCPS budget specialist Allen Francois and council members at the April DCPS budget hearing here starting at 3:38:37.)

–More than a quarter of all charter board meetings between October 18, 2017, and October 31, 2018, were closed to the public.

–In 2019, Chavez and Monument charter schools closed without parents or teachers involved in the decisions (see here and here), while Mundo Verde charter school blocked parents from entering and hired a consultant to intimidate unionizing teachers.

–The expansion of Washington Latin charter school was not made known publicly until its application with the charter board in April—despite having been announced in a blog a year earlier.

–Teacher turnover within our schools is only self-reported at best—and, as school data guru Mary Levy noted, not accurately.

–Lead has been found in yet more school playground surfaces—but testing was not done, nor initially reported, by any city agency.

–Sexual abuse in one school’s aftercare revealed lack of oversight in the entire vetting process of employees for at least one company; whether the lack of vetting is more widespread remains unknown, amid a bevy of unanswered questions from elected officials.

–According to investigative journalists, DC schoolchildren have been subjected to unusual, harsh, and detrimental treatment, including seclusion and restraints and restricted bathroom passes.

–Also according to investigative journalists, there’s an ongoing grading and graduation scandal in at least one DC charter school that remains unexamined by city officials.

–A member of the charter board, Naomi Shelton, recently took employment with KIPP—and no city leader has publicly stated any problem with that, despite the fact that it appears to violate two sections of DC code (see here and here).

Neither of the bills here addresses most of these things. In fact, they don’t address well or at all the most basic items of true democracy, FOIA and the Open Meetings Act (OMA).

Right now, nearly half our kids attend charters for which neither FOIA nor the OMA apply. Although one of the bills here (0239) does provide for the OMA to apply to charter schools, it doesn’t mention FOIA at all.

This is especially weird given that the council actually has a bill that provides for both OMA and FOIA in our charter schools. But that bill, 0199, is not officially part of this hearing. Rather, its hearing is slated for–wait for it–October. Here is what 0199 provides for our charter schools:

–Transparency in contracts greater than $25,000;
–Complying with FOIA and the Open Meetings Act;
–Teachers and students represented on boards.

(See here for Mary Levy’s handy write-up of the differences in the THREE transparency bills (0199, 0239, and 0046), and here for a write-up by EmpowerEd of the differences between 0199 and 0239, only the latter of which is part of the June hearing.)

In an ideal world, of course, all of what is provided for in 0199 would be in at least one of the bills (0239 and 0046) at the June hearing. But the fact that FOIA is explicitly being excluded from tomorrow’s hearing on budget transparency suggests that something else is at play.

Although charter schools elsewhere do follow FOIA, charter advocates here have noted that those schools are governed differently than in DC, being under either one board of education or the leadership team of traditional public schools. Thus, those charter schools are all directly controlled by government actors–unlike in DC, where charters are run more like publicly funded nonprofits than government agencies.

All of which constitutes a rather charming excuse, given that there is a much bigger unstated reason to not have FOIA in our charter schools: the interests of government actors in a system of school choice.

In DC as elsewhere, school choice endeavors to turn what is provided as a public good (public education of right in every quarter for everyone) into a marketplace, ensuring that people whose schools of right may not be well-supported or with high ratings have a way of opting out of them and choosing something else.

But in DC, the public cannot inform or shape this marketplace *at all*.

[Confidential to the DC council and Mayor Bowser: People make demands. Waitlists are lists. People are not waitlists. Waitlists are not demands.]

It’s not merely that no DC parent has a choice of what school will be selected for their child in the lottery by a computer. The DC public also has no agency in what schools are planned, created, approved, or closed. Just this school year, for instance, our city created Bard, expanded Banneker, approved many charter schools opening, expanding and closing, and in none of those did the public have any meaningful part before the decisions were made and announced.

Perhaps worse is the fact that we have relatively few city leaders with actual power over our schools. Here’s the sum total: the mayor, the council, the charter board, its executive director, the DCPS chancellor, the deputy mayor for education, and the state superintendent of education.

Together, these 25 people have absolute power over our schools and their budgets of more than $2 BILLION every year. Eleven of these people–those with the most direct authority–are unelected. The 14 elected officials have many other duties besides school governance, which means their ability to monitor the unelected officials (much less be directly answerable in the event of “bumps in the road”) is necessarily limited.

So it is that DC’s school “marketplace” is entirely determined without any unbiased, neutral assessment of need either by government actors, who often act in private (i.e., Kenilworth, Banneker, Bard), or by private operators making their case to an unelected board not directly answerable to the public (and that now has a member with an apparent conflict of interest).

In addition, none of the true costs of DC’s school “marketplace” are ever disclosed or accounted for, despite new charter schools implicating millions in new facilities fees every year and consequent loss of resources and enrollment at existing schools.

Perhaps expectedly, such a “marketplace,” created with insider knowledge and decision making, confers true choice and freedom only to insiders:

–private operators, free of the responsibility of rights in education and free of reporting most uses of public funds to the public and

–government actors, free from ensuring all schools of right are equitable because if any school can be chosen, there is no need to bother fixing any, thus continuing proliferation of new schools; defunding existing schools of right with poor students; enrollment loss; and closures, all of which ensures a steady stream of revenue and buildings to privatizers (who, not coincidentally, help fund campaigns–a win-win!).

But into this casino-shiny narrative of choice, competition, and “quality” in schools, FOIA provides a democratic disruption. In our city, where “options” stand in for education rights, and schools are treated like toilet paper (a commodity chosen, used, then discarded based on facts and figures that measure nothing as much as demographics), the costs of imposing choice, competition, and “quality” as stand-ins for rights are never accounted for publicly. Indeed, those costs are not even borne by the people monetarily benefitting from choice, competition, and “quality,” but by the people with the least say in any of it: the public!

Against that backdrop, FOIA is one of the most basic tools of school transparency, providing answers to the question of who stands to lose when the public funding our school choice casinos finds out where the money is really going.

Not surprisingly, some of DC’s education leaders appear to reserve great well springs of hate for FOIA. At an oversight hearing on February 15 this year, for instance, the executive director of the charter board referenced a FOIA request filed in what he characterized as a “sheer act of spite.” (See the video here at about 2:20:45)

Notwithstanding that there is no requirement for, uh, lack of spite in FOIA requests, the idea that a government actor would dismiss a law because it might allow a perceived act of spite is, well, extraordinary.

Such apparent fear of FOIA has also raised the spectre of its cost–even when last year a total of $3 million (out of a city budget of nearly $15 BILLION) was spent by all city agencies answering FOIA requests (including $22,000 spent by the charter board). The total number of FOIA requests in DCPS last year was 184 versus 74 in the charter board.

In the end, it may not be the money spent on FOIA that’s creating fear, but the money being spent right now on what FOIA could uncover. (Like, I don’t know, emails about a government official using his government position for private gain.)

Regardless, be sure to at least listen to the excuses tomorrow for why we cannot have FOIA in all our schools–and then ask yourself who’s giving the excuses and what they stand to lose.

Because they are deeply, deeply scared.


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