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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

Fritz Mulhauser | February 21, 2019

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 a charter head at an oversight hearing,
  • 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 points that charters are plenty accountable and transparent and concluded that adding any more public records access to charter legal obligations would be intolerably burdensome.

Holtzman’s figure (without a source) that “cost of review alone can run $350 an hour” seems 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 the cost of attorney review.

In fact, for the entire D.C. charter system, the charter board (which is subject to DC FOIA) received only 74 requests last year, answered 60 within the 15 days allowed, granted 56 in full or part and needed 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.

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.  Why?

Not the quality of her work with children and colleagues, which received the highest accolades. But 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 Council to get even more than currently allocated). 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 does that include 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?  Are charter teachers and their employers so different 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, but protecting teacher speech is off the table?

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