D.C. Charter School Transparency: Opponents Surface, While Advocacy Has A Fearful Price: One Charter School Dismisses A Gifted Teacher “Who Spoke Out” in Favor

UPDATED 3/6/19: California Governor Gavin Newsom yesterday (5) signed the state law that will apply open meetings and public records laws to that state's charter schools. See news coverage here. Bill text is here. It takes effect January 1, 2020.

 

UPDATED 2/26/19: The D.C. Open Government Coalition testified at the Public Charter School Board's second hearing on transparency Monday night (25), pointing out that "lists of required publications are no substitute for openness to requests" from the public. Only a requester knows what they are looking for, yet by only requiring schools to post a few preselected items, the board is deciding what thousands of families need to know to take informed part in their students' education. The expanded requirements, for instance, still do not require open meetings or budget details. The Coalition also pointed out to the board that opponents offer no support for predictions about the burden of open records and open meetings. In contrast, recent calls to charters in other states with such transparency requirements show that none have any difficulty handling the small number of requests received each year. None mentioned more than five. The hearing video is here, and the Coalition testimony is at 00:52. The Coalition written statement is available through the link below.

The subject got little attention as the board heard testimony--sometimes emotional about lives affected, sometimes complex about construction bonds and financial problems, from teachers and officials of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools. The schools' enrollment growth has not met projections, so funds aren''t available to pay building loans. The schools are asking approval to close down part of its program to stave off financial crisis such as foreclosure on the whole multi-campus plan. Organized teachers at the school noted how official secrecy by school authorities made a bad situation much worse. 

The charter board votes in March on its limited transparency policy, about the same time a bill is expected in the D.C. Council to include charter schools in FOIA and open meetings laws. Teacher advocates will discuss the transparency they want on a panel at the Coalition's March 12 Sunshine Week summit event (6:30 pm, American Bar Association, 1050 Conn. Ave., N.W.). Legislation has passed both chambers of the legislature in California to add charters to the state's open meetings and public records access laws. It awaits the signature of governor Gavin Newsom, who supported such legislation in his campaign as long overdue (the previous governor Jerry Brown had vetoed the idea repeatedly). Background on the legislation and the politics of its passage are here.

 

As the D.C. charter school board prepares for a second hearing (Monday, Feb. 25) on an expanded list of items schools must post, the issue went even more public in recent days.

  • D.C. Council heard opponents of broader public access to meetings and records -- the powerful charter lobby group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) and several charter heads -- at an oversight hearing on the charter board a week ago (15) (video here; Holtzman at 1:55:00),
  • WAMU writer Jenny Abamu dived deeply into the history of D.C. charter schools to explain their unusual autonomy that traces to their origins in congressional actions, and
  • Washington City Paper headlined Rachel Cohen’s story, “Bridges Public Charter School Dismisses Well-Loved Teacher Who Spoke Out.” 

The Council testimony of Irene Holtzman, the FOCUS executive director, and Shannon Hodge, founder of Kingsman Academy, rehearsed the familiar claims that charters are plenty accountable and transparent and that adding public records access to individual schools' obligations would be intolerably burdensome.

Holtzman said (without a source) that were there to be public access to records via FOIA, “cost of review alone can run $350 an hour.”  This is akin to Mayor Bowser’s equally unsupported scare number in 2015 as she unsuccessfully fought police accountability on cost grounds, claiming that public access to MPD body camera video would require millions for attorney review (a prediction that the D.C. Coalition has proved completely wrong).

In fact, FOIA requests for charter records have been few and simple lately--to judge from real data. Requests to the charter board (which is subject to DC FOIA) for records it holds across the entire system of 120+ schools numbered only 74 in all 12 months last year--at most only one or two a week. The board dispatched them, answering 60 within the 15 days allowed, granting 56 in full or part, and needing only one-third of a full-time staff person to do so (650 hours, or 31% of 2,080 hours in a full-time worker's year). See Mayor's FY 2018 FOIA Report. Doesn't seem like a heavy lift.

Even so, charter schools must see terribly high stakes, it appears from last week’s story by Rachel Cohen of a well-regarded teacher at Bridges Public Charter School whose contract was not renewed.  

What's the connection?

It wasn't the quality of her work with children and colleagues; those had received the highest accolades. The only explanation was that she wasn’t a “good fit” (which the school refused to explain to the reporter) – maybe because in recent months she had questioned closed-door decision making at the small, early-grades school, made a FOIA request to the charter board and published the results, and joined other teachers speaking out publicly for greater openness.

The school community didn't take long to conclude what the firing meant, Cohen reports.

One parent wrote the school that "an excellent teacher being fired for nothing to do with her teaching....sends a message to other teachers that they need to be quiet and comply. And what I hear loud and clear from this as a parent is it's more important to the administration that no one is rocking the boat than a highly exceptional teacher be able to continue in the school, and I find that profoundly upsetting."

Said another (also quoted by Cohen), "To say she's not a 'right fit' really makes me question what kind of staff they're trying to cultivate."

Charter schools want to be public when access to tax funds is on the table (and have sued the D.C. Council to get even more than currently allocated). Yet they want to be private when that confers a free pass on all laws and regulations except a handful of health, safety and civil rights measures (such as special education). 

But can they really act outside the Constitution? The First Amendment is typically viewed as protecting against speech restrictions imposed by a state actor--including protecting speech rights of teachers. As the Supreme Court held in reversing the firing of Illinois teacher Marvin Pickering in 1968 after he wrote a letter to the editor about school board funding priorities:

[A]bsent proof of false statements knowingly or recklessly made by him, a teacher's exercise of his right to speak on issues of public importance may not furnish the basis for his dismissal from public employment.

Pickering v. Board of Education (1968).

OK, yes, "public employment." So, it may take the D.C. Council and the Court of Appeals to answer what kind of employment is charter teaching in D.C. Are charter teachers and their employers so different, so private, as to be outside the Pickering view?  The Council requires charters to give an employment preference for D.C residents seeking any charter school job. D.C. Code 38-1802.07(d). Protecting D.C. residents is OK to impose, but protecting teacher speech is off the table?

Meanwhile, the charter transparency revolution in the District appears to have its first casualty.