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Coalition Urges (Again) That FOIA Be Expanded to Cover Charter Schools; And This Time Dozens of Others Agreed

Fritz Mulhauser | July 22, 2019

The D.C. Council has wrapped up the Fiscal Year 2020 budget but held an eight-hour hearing June 26 on process details: how to allocate and track education dollars flowing to schools in the traditional system, especially special funds intended to help the neediest students, that the D.C. Auditor reported recently had likely been misspent for years.

In truth, both murky budgeting and monkeyshines with “at risk” funds are not exactly news, and Education Committee chairman David Grosso (Ind.-At large) tried unsuccessfully to limit testimony to two bills to correct those problems.     

The truly big news was the fierce testimony of witness after witness asking for more transparency at the school level in the charter sector.

The Coalition has urged this before without success, against opponents arguing it’s enough that the Public Charter School Board is subject to open meetings and open records laws and the 123 schools operated by 66 nonprofits should be left alone to focus on teaching and learning.

The Post‘s Perry Stein led her hearing story with the at-risk misspending and in 1,000 words that followed, gave barely 60 to the dramatic political shift seen in the public outpouring for charter transparency.

The dozens of pro-transparency witnesses now included charter teachers and parents. They support their charter schools and appreciate the creativity unleashed by charter autonomy — but still are disappointed at big decisions behind doors closed to staff and families, including the disruptive and controversial closings this year. Teacher professionals balk at being told work plans (like class size and curriculum) and salary schedules are secret.

In this vein, Perry Stein did capture a great quote from a charter parent: “flexibility does not require secrecy.”

Open meetings of charter boards is in one of the pending bills, but public records access (extending the D.C. Freedom of Information Act to cover charter schools) appears only in a third bill by Charles Allen (B23-0199) not due for a hearing until October 2.

Charter opposition was still on display, again with unsourced sky-will-fall predictions. An attorney offered irrelevant “facts” (like those also in an earlier Post op-ed) that FOIA requests involve many hours and stacks of papers (experience apparently drawn from his work in a major corporate law firm).

Charter teachers who have canvassed colleagues in other states to ask about experience with FOIA testified they found the opposite: few requests and small burdens.

Questions from Council member Robert White (D-At large) showed skepticism of the familiar generalized burden arguments of FOIA opponents though he also announced he’s undecided on the topic.

Attorney Traci Hughes testified as the vice president of the Coalition (and as a charter parent) in favor of merging the Allen bill with the others and requiring that D.C. FOIA apply to charters. She reported that a new nationwide review by the Coalition confirms D.C. is an outlier — other states commonly do this.

The hearing video is here. Coalition testimony is at 3:39. The Coalition written statement for the record is available at the link below.

The hearing adjourned at 6:15 after a rough two-hour session with the D.C. education brass at the witness table (chancellor, deputy mayor, state superintendent, charter board executive director). Nothing about the charter FOIA issue came up. On open meetings, Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson complained charters need closed meetings even more than the rest of the public bodies covered by the D.C. Open Meetings Act, for example, for early discussions of real estate possibilities, long before a specific deal is in negotiation. But Charles Allen said “we can work with you” and Pearson admitted charter nonprofits could probably live with open meetings rules.

Action at least on the budget process proposals seems likely in the fall, as Council leaders appear eager to get changes in place before the next budget cycle that begins in December leading to the mayor’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget submitted in March of 2020.

The fate of the open government details is uncertain and will depend on votes in committee when the three bills are marked up, and then in the full Council.

48 hours after the hearing demonstrated the unprecedented outpouring of support for expanded transparency laws applied to charter schools, the charter lobby swung into damage-control mode.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recommends in its model state charter law that schools accept open meetings and open records laws; open government advocates have noted this for years.

But on June 28, Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the Alliance, released a statement spinning this model law and the state laws it accepts. Now Ziebarth said these are irrelevant in the District — why? Because Charter Board policies already provide transparency!

Indeed, said Ziebarth, to say otherwise is “to willingly defy common sense.”

Possibly it’s the Alliance that lacks common sense: it is the ultimate authoritarian position that transparency is what officials allow. The District can do better.

The full Alliance statement is available at https://bit.ly/2LXXU3d:

“We have been increasingly concerned to see how our model law’s provisions regarding open meetings and open records have been misused by public charter school opponents in Washington, D.C. to try to undermine the good work being done by D.C.’s charter schools and the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

To be clear, our model law includes a provision that requires charter school governing boards to subject to and comply with state open meetings and freedom of information laws. And this provision isn’t in place in D.C.

However, the overriding value that this provision is focused on is transparency. And the charter school movement in D.C., through all of the policies that the D.C. Public Charter School Board has put in place, meets the intent of this provision in a way that respects the unique nature of D.C.’s chartering and education governance structure.

One would have to willingly defy common sense to look at the long list of the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s open meeting and open record requirements and conclude that D.C.’s charter schools aren’t transparent.”