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One Small Step in the D.C. Council Towards Charter School Transparency

Fritz Mulhauser | October 14, 2019

In a brief session October 8, the D.C. Council Committee on Education passed legislation that requires all the District’s 123 charter schools to open segments of board meetings where opening or closing a school is discussed or a final budget adopted. Charter closures in the past school year, decided behind closed doors but affecting hundreds, drew strong criticism from staff and parents and powered a dramatic new citywide advocacy movement for greater charter transparency, including access to meetings and records in general.

Multiple bills have been pending. Several added charters to the D.C. Open Government and Freedom of Information Acts. Others changed all schools’ budgeting and financial reporting to address longstanding confusion over spending comparisons and also audit findings that special funds targeted to help at risk students proved impossible to track given what the chairman, David Grosso (Ind.-At Large), called the “disjointed” dual school system in the District. Coalition reports of two marathon hearings are here and here. Post combined coverage of the second hearing and markup by Perry Stein is here.

But last week’s bill makes sweeping changes in DCPS schools’ budgeting and all schools’ financial reporting while remaining far short of the full access to meetings and records many in hearings had called for. 

Unless amended later, the legislation does not address public access to charter school records and opens charter boards’ meetings for only two subjects, school opening/closing/expansion and budget adoption. And the bill allows closed discussion of anything related to the “operation” of the schools.

As Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) questioned the value of such limited opening, Chairman Grosso defended the access his bill provides as serving “the best interests of creating space for parents to be engaged in budget making” and as necessary to avoid a worse outcome if the Council simply adds charter schools to public bodies subject to open meetings law generally.

In a scenario observers found hard to follow, Mr. Grosso theorized that without the mandates in his bill, charters newly subject to the existing law will respond by closing all board discussions with a claim they involve “trade secrets or commercial and financial information obtained from outside the government.”

The existing Open Meetings Act allows such closings, as Mr. Allen acknowledged, for example if a board wanted to hear privately from competing education software vendors. Each would ask to keep features and prices under wraps as they pitch their products to win a contract.  

Less clear is how the exemption in current law could be interpreted as allowing secret discussion of the general operations of charters that are no doubt public schools, and whose work is surely among the most public endeavors, done every day in full view of children, staff and parents.

Mr. Grosso reported, “as charters have argued on the record and in my office, since they began, they are nonprofits that exist outside the government and they will try to apply that trade secret exemption…I’m not trying to limit open government here. I’m trying to actually make sure they don’t have a loophole to go through…to try to get out of a whole lot of things.”

Mr. Allen said he “appreciated the robust discussion” but remained “uncomfortable with the language as it is” since so much seemed likely to remain closed to public access. The two agreed to work together on possible amendment. Council member Robert White (D-At Large) in brief remarks noted he shared Mr. Allen’s concerns.

The bill is B23-0239. The video of the committee markup is available at https://dc.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=5178. The bill will be considered next by the Committee of the Whole, headed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. The Coalition plans a statement with detailed analysis of the possible application of the law as discussed in the markup.