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New Teacher Voices Speak Powerfully for Charter School Transparency

Fritz Mulhauser | October 31, 2018 | Last modified: August 12, 2019

Five D.C. charter school teachers jump-started the movement for greater freedom of information in that sector as they gave personal testimonies at a workshop recently—new life for a moribund effort to align D.C. law to the nationwide norm of open meetings and open records at these publicly-supported schools.

There are 123 charter schools run by 66 organizations in D.C. They enroll about half of District children and spend almost $750 million annually in local tax funds yet they need not hold open meetings or furnish documents to the public, parents or press. They answer only to the Public Charter School Board appointed by the mayor.

Members of EmpowerEd, a new teacher-driven D.C. nonprofit, convened over 100 teachers all day on a Saturday (20) to present data and views on a half-dozen topics. The charter transparency group asked participants to commit to improved openness and to support Council legislative action towards that goal, to end the climate of managed information set by many schools’ administration and boards. Colleagues, they said, fear raising too many questions, a sure way to be gone next year. (Apparently even experienced charter teachers lack any job protections.)

Despite this threat, the group offered candid accounts of how their transparency zeal had grown out of negative experiences: 

  • An experienced preschool teacher told of class sizes raised without explanation. When teachers asked, board and administration passed the buck about who did it and why—even though it had strong effects on instruction. Promised improvements in information-sharing and opportunities for feedback never materialized.
  • A science teacher saw thousands spent on expensive consultants who added little value, yet the contract was shrouded in secrecy and board meetings were closed. “If you can’t get in, there’s some problem being hidden” he  concluded, and organized a union chapter to level the playing field. (A reporter on the panel spoke of her own difficulties finding accurate data on consultant contracts.)
  • A special education teacher was disturbed when in parent meetings she heard her school’s officials give parents inaccurate information about their children’s programs and their rights, though her own training in the law of disability had made clear the school’s much stronger obligations.
  • Another science teacher found no audience when he asked questions about racial disparities in discipline. He resigned.
  • And a high school history teacher recalled the exhilaration on changing schools (after losing a tough teacher organizing battle at his prior school) and finding that his new colleagues were encouraged to talk about their common concerns about their practice.

Proposals for adding records and meetings access to charter law (as is common elsewhere) have failed here in past years for lack of organized advocacy to overcome the intense opposition of charter boards, staff and lobbyists. 

But these new, raw and heartfelt voices of experienced charter teacher leaders may change that after elections this fall and a new D.C. Council session convenes in January. First-hand accounts from inside the schools about how secrecy poisons trust could help the Council understand what’s at stake and move action where there has been none.

“We want to know because we care,” said one panelist—about as succinctly as could be.

Video of the presentations is available at the EmpowerEd website here.

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