Lack of transparency by charter leaders will lead to D.C. Council transparency bill passage

I have spent considerable time listening to the testimony of charter school supporters before the D.C. Council last week regarding the bill proposed by Charles Allen that would require these schools of choice to adhere to the open meetings law and force them to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. I’m frankly not impressed. It appears that the unspoken strategy that our side employed was to advance the argument that this legislation would do nothing to improve the quality of the education that children are receiving. It did not work. In fact, I feel that we simply allowed those in favor of these requirements to offer the consistent line of reasoning that since charter schools are receiving taxpayer money they must be responsive to the public’s desire for as much information about their operations as is available, just as is the case with any government entity. However, charter schools are not part of the government.

We should have taken a different approach. What we did not explain, and there was plenty of evidence to make this point, is that charter schools in the nation’s capital are under attack. We could have shown through the power of the printed word that there are people out there, specifically certain reporters, that appear to be on a mission to see these schools vanish from the face of the earth. We could have quoted articles that have gone after the salaries of school administrators, have criticized as evil an organization whose mission is to turnaround low performing institutions, and that have bemoaned schools for contributing financially to organizations established to defend their integrity. We could have illustrated the efforts of teachers’ unions to undermine our existence.

DC Public Charter Board executive director Scott Pearson came closest to offering the line of reasoning that I am proposing. He stated:

“We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.”

We should have shouted that if you pass Mr. Allen’s legislation, that on the face of it appears well intended, the open meeting law and FOIA will become a weapon in the arsenal to shutter the charter movement. Make no mistake about it. Schools will be targeted and there will be nothing they will be able to do in the face of these new requirements.

A shinning light came in the form of the remarks by Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS. I reprint them below:

“Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso, and members of the Council. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6. This morning, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. I have testified before you on several occasions regarding how charter schools in general are transparent and how Kingsman Academy specifically takes additional steps to open our operations and decision-making to important stakeholders. For example, our board meetings are open to the public and we announce them on our website. We have a Faculty and Staff Advisory Council that meets regularly to share their concerns and suggestions and provide feedback and perspective on initiatives under consideration. We utilize student and parent focus groups to make sure that we are responsive to stakeholders’ questions and concerns. And with the Transparency Hub of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), we can be assured that the public has access to relevant financial, performance, policy, and procurement information in a clear, straightforward manner.

Despite this level of access, I have seen very little family or public interest in the routine governance matters of my school. Although every one of our board meetings since May 2015 has been open and publicly posted, we have had members of the public or school staff appear only twice: once to present a proposal to the board and once to observe a board meeting as part of our accreditation process. The types of sensational headlines that may appear once per school year in the city do not reflect what typically happens at our board meetings. And, unfortunately, I do not know that anything in the legislation before you will prevent those headlines. Adding constraints on those meetings and requiring certain people to be on those boards only adds to the bureaucracy.

I have four specific asks as you continue to consider this legislation. First, I ask that you not substitute the DC PCSB as a de facto central office for charter schools. The DC PCSB is not equivalent to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It does not operate any schools. Its primary responsibility is to determine whether charter schools stay open based on the goals that we have adopted and agreed upon in our charters. Asking the DC PCSB to provide technical support and assistance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clouds its role and our work. As it currently stands, charter schools pay the DC PCSB millions of dollars per year to support its work. Kingsman Academy alone pays more than the equivalent of what we would pay a full-time teacher’s salary and benefits to the DC PCSB on an annual basis. Your requiring the DC PCSB to provide assistance with this legislation will inevitably lead to the cost of that support being passed along to charter schools. Please do not punish schools by adding costs that our funding cannot support. Instead, set up a special purpose revenue non-lapsing fund for compliance with this legislation.

Second, I ask that you talk to school leaders, especially of small, single-site charter schools like Kingsman Academy, to hear directly how this proposed legislation will affect us and to use that information to refine the bill. With past legislation, such as the school discipline bills led by Councilmember Grosso, this Council very deliberately engaged school leaders over a period of time to strengthen the proposals.

Third, I ask you to consider the provision of this legislation that would define the boards of public charter schools as public bodies for FOIA purposes. Will the city cover our legal bills related to FOIA compliance, as it does for other public agencies? If you are willing to consider us as public bodies for this purpose, are you also willing to provide the 11 percent match to our teachers’ retirement contributions as you do for DCPS? Are you willing to pay for modernizing the buildings that we own?

Fourth, I ask you to consider whether the problems you are trying to address with this legislation are actually served by it. As I think about the DC students who are dying due to gun violence, the disparities in student performance for students with disabilities and the students designated as “at-risk”, this legislation seems to call your attention away from the most significant problems facing schools in this city.

Thank you for your time and your attention to this matter. “

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