D.C. Council Heard New Voices During 17-Month Campaign: Voted to Open Charter School Board Meetings Beginning October 1
Fritz Mulhauser | July 30, 2020 | Last modified: August 1, 2020
The D.C. Open Government Coalition congratulates the many parents and teachers in charter schools, as well as other concerned citizens, energized for reform after charter schools changed programs or even shut down in meetings behind closed doors in the last few years. Their advocacy for board meeting sunshine that we were pleased to support, often assisted by effective leadership of the EmpowerEd group, culminated in a D.C. Council vote this week (28). The D.C. Open Meetings law will now apply to the 123 D.C. charter schools beginning October 1.
Bolstered by carefully tended political ties, charters until this week seemed for years to enjoy the clout to have their way in D.C. education decisions. As Washington City Paper headlined Rachel Cohen’s deep history in 2019, ““How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics: Federal intervention, an army of lobbyists, and taxpayer money have helped D.C. charters keep local lawmakers off their backs.”
But now nine of the 13 D.C. legislators voted for the proposal though charter school officials had opposed it. Lobbying materials (as Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) described them) had been “sent around intensely” in recent days. The ideas that prevailed were offered by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) as part of the 2021 Budget Support Act, statutory changes that are necessary to implement the budget.
The session is on video here, and the debate started at the 1:18 point.
Charters are a major enterprise, operated by 66 nonprofits and educating over 43,000 students (about half of the District’s total) at a cost of over a billion dollars each year, mostly paid by D.C. taxpayers.
The schools’ governing boards have been exempt from public access rules and thus able to operate in secrecy. This is unlike charter boards elsewhere that routinely comply with states’ open meetings and open records laws.
Mr. Grosso, Chairman of the Council Education Committee, authored a proposal for limited openness but the dramatic vote replaced it with the broader Allen text after a 45-minute debate suggesting erosion in the unquestioning support charters have enjoyed for years.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) argued the Allen version remained technically confusing (though he struggled to explain why) and should be delayed for clarifications and more consultation with charter school officials.
Mr. Grosso argued “sensitive information on business practices would be released unnecessarily” and that the law intended charters to be “autonomous.” He claimed the Allen measure would cause costly legal battles over compliance that would drain funds and “cut into work they can do for reopening.”
That’s a D.C. favorite, the “Washington Monument strategy,” in which an opponent fights a proposal with a scary prediction that something precious will be lost. As a Washington Post 2013 blog described it, “the Park Service would react to a budget cut by threatening to close the Washington Monument, figuring that disappointed tourists would flood their Member of Congress’s office complaining about it.”
Here Mr. Grosso suggested implausibly that simply opening meetings starting in October would lead to litigation cutting into charters’ spending for proper preparation for reopening schools during the pandemic.
Most members saw it differently, repeatedly affirming they found the Allen proposal was clear and had not lacked for consultation. It resulted in fact from painstaking review of charter transparency issues in multiple hearings on several bills and discussions with stakeholders and subject matter experts. Indeed, Mr. Allen explained how his proposal added topics he agreed should be heard in closed session specifically requested by charters during his many meetings with their officials.
Also warning Council members of the need for improvement of the flawed Grosso proposal, the director of the Office of Open Government, a D.C. agency that oversees compliance with the Open Meetings Act, wrote a letter Monday (27). It predicted the effect of the proposal’s exemptions could be not more transparency but instead possible evasion of the intent of the law and more of the same — “the majority of their meetings being held in closed sessions.”
Comments of other Council members showed greater willingness than before to regulate charters:
- Elissa Silverman (D-At Large) stressed the public’s basic “right to understand charter operations”;
- Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) noted the broad public interest suggested to her that charter officials’ opposition “may not represent all of the families they are serving”; and
- Mary Cheh (D-Ward-3) called the latest pressure “typical of charter leaders, to sow confusion and raise a specter of horribles” while in fact the move to open meetings has been thoroughly vetted and is “far overdue.”
Contributing to the changed political climate may have been a federal appeals court decision last year dismissing a charter-sponsored 2014 lawsuit. Charters had complained that alleged Council underfunding violated federal law. Home Rule advocates were pleased that the court decided the 1996 School Reform Act creating D.C. charters is not a federal law. Instead, said the court, it’s a local law passed by Congress that only applies to D.C., and does not serve as a basis for federal court jurisdiction to review Council decisions on charter schools.
Allen ended the debate again recalling the large turnouts at hearings seeking more openness and concluding “this is a moment that is ripe.”
Other members were ready to act with him.
Councilmembers Mendelson and Grosso gained only two other “no” votes at the final roll call, Councilmembers Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5).
The Coalition took an active part in the campaign leading to the successful vote to open charters’ board meetings. We look forward to working with community partners to improve public records access at charters as well. If you are interested in working with us, contact the Coalition at firstname.lastname@example.org.