Charter School Transparency: Real Problem or Red Herring?
“Transparency” has long been a fashionable word here in Washington, and lately its use has increased in conversations about education as trust and faith have been eroded in DC’s traditional school system. The past three years have been filled with scandal after scandal after scandal, raising questions about DC Public Schools’ graduation rates, ousting a chancellor only a year into the job, and sounding alarms about enrollment at a selective high school. It is no surprise, then, that the transparency conversation has expanded to the charter sector, which enrolls nearly half of public school students in the city.
This week, DC Councilmember Charles Allen announced he will be introducing legislation to treat DC’s independently run but publicly funded charter schools like full government agencies, requiring them to comply with D.C.’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) and Freedom of Access to Information Act (FOIA), require publishing individual teacher names and salaries, as well as add elected teacher representatives to their governing boards. Allen and the activists who lobbied him to propose the bill say they simply want to treat all public schools equally.
Treating all public schools the same is not their goal. Their goal is making all schools the same.
DC Should Demand Performance from Public Schools, Not Paperwork
The fact is, DC’s charter sector has grown over the last two decades precisely because charter schools are not all the same, and they are different from traditional public schools assigned to families based on where they live. A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations in return for greater accountability for performance. Charter schools are open to all children, do not require entrance exams, cannot charge tuition, and must participate in state testing and federal accountability programs.
The “charter” establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment. What matters in charter schools is not the inputs but the outcomes — not their teachers’ names and how their salaries compare (as Allen’s legislation seeks to know for every school) but how well their students do. A volunteer board of trustees, which in DC includes parents and sometimes teachers and students, is responsible for upholding the school’s performance promises around academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability. If a charter school does not meet performance goals, the DC Public Charter School Board can close it.
By contrast, in the DC Public Schools district, the Chancellor alone oversees campuses. While there are expectations that every school will meet or exceed standards, falling short has never forced a DCPS school to close.
It was because so many neighborhood public schools were failing that the D.C. School Reform Act (SRA) of 1995 created the charter sector in the District of Columbia. Congress mandated that DC adopt charter schools to pressure the city’s public schools to improve and to give parents more options for public education. Charters would have never been created if the status quo had not been so bad. Since their inception, DC charter schools have worked to improve educational outcomes for all children in the District. Today, tens of thousands of families have chosen charter schools, and DCPS has improved significantly.
Through it all, the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) has been the authorizer charged with developing credibility, enforcing accountability, and creating the level of oversight necessary to ensure the best and strongest charter sector possible. An authorizer is an entity or body approved by the legislature to bring charter schools into existence. Authorizers set up application processes and approve or deny charter school applications. In DC, there are not multiple authorizers, so PCSB is exclusively focused on chartering, sustaining, and replicating high-quality schools.
Any Additional Disclosures Should Provide Real Insights, Not False Assurances
Supporters of Councilmember Allen’s transparency proposals argue that D.C. lags behind other states with respect to open meetings and public records. In reality, DC’s charter sector is one of the most tightly regulated and one of the highest-performing in the country, and already provides an abundance of data to the public through the DC Public Charter School Board. Even in places where charter schools are subject to more aggressive transparency requirements, education observers admire the quality controls of the DC Public Charter School Board, the consistency it fosters as our one authorizer, and the academic performance and fiscal responsibility of the DC charter sector as a whole.
Annually, and sometimes more regularly, PCSB collects and makes public detailed information from charter schools about school climate, academic quality, audited finances, salaries, PARCC test performance, school contracts, spending to support “at-risk” students, IRS 990 disclosures, school budgets, and more. Minutes for the meetings of schools’ volunteer trustees were always available upon request, and the PCSB is now requiring that schools post the minutes on their websites as well. PCSB provides nearly 100,000 pages of information on its website. Is that not enough for parents to understand the workings of their children’s schools? Is that not enough for taxpayers to feel their investment in public education is paying off? Why burden charter school leaders, educators, staff and volunteers with more responsibilities that have little impact on student achievement?
To Treat Charter Schools Equally, Fund Them Equitably
In DC, charter schools already receive nearly 30 percent less funding than traditional district schools and lack access to government-provided facilities and services, including attorneys to help them comply with rules placed on schools. Councilmember Allen’s legislation would add a new dimension to that inequity by adding requirements on one type of public school in DC that are not applied to another type. Similarly, because charter schools are nonprofit organizations and not government agencies, the Allen proposal would burden a segment of nonprofits in DC with requirements that other nonprofits that also receive government funding are exempt from.
Traditional public schools do not provide, nor are they required to submit, independently audited financial information; charter schools do. Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs) must hold open meetings as extensions of DC Public Schools, but they have minimal authority over school operations. The Chancellor, who has ultimate authority over all DCPS schools, is not required to hold open meetings — or even provide minutes — when he meets to make decisions with the Mayor, Deputy Mayor for Education, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, individual councilmembers, senior central office staff, or school principals.
So other than the mostly inconsequential meetings of LSATs, what DCPS meetings are open and which ones are furnishing minutes? We should require that ALL schools submit audited financials, not just at the Local Education Agency (LEA) level. If the influence of financial donors to schools is a concern as well — and Allen’s bill implies it is — then all school Parent Teacher Associations/Organizations (PTAs/PTOs) or other school-affiliated nonprofits designed to raise money, should submit financial reports naming anyone who contributed more than $500 in a year and how much they gave. It should all be public.
The transparency advocates calling for new rules like these for charters should have called for this for every school. The fact that they didn’t reveals that this bill is really about trying to crush DC’s charter sector with bureaucracy that drains resources from the students and educators who choose to learn and work in these schools.
No level of transparency will assuage the ardent opponents of charter schools who are pressuring DC lawmakers to support this legislation. Their goal is a return to a local education system where children may only attend the school where their address assigns them or, at least, where every public school in DC operates under a restrictive union contract. Applying rules equally to DCPS and charter schools does not interest them. If it did, they would be calling for an end to the funding and facility inequities that result in lower funding for charter school students and buildings.
More Transparency in Charter Critics’ Motives, Please
When will opponents of public school alternatives consider these schools and the families in them to be equals? I wonder these things while thinking about how many parents choose charter schools for their kids. I wonder about these questions as I also think about how many of these schools have been able to become launchpads for success for many of the students and families in the city, but especially those families from Wards 7 and 8. I wonder about these things as I also ponder what it will take for America to see and treat folks who look like me with equality and respect. As a federal investigation into college admissions reminded us this week, the system is broken. Charter schools didn’t break it.
Those of us who believe in charter schools resent the insinuation in Allen’s legislation that charter educators are somehow cheating the public when the fact is that they receive less government funding than traditional schools but graduate students at a higher rate. We resent the implication that the hundreds of community and parent volunteers who serve on charter schools’ boards in DC are not putting students’ needs first. And we resent the assumption that the parents, grandparents, friends and community supporters who donate to charter schools do so with some hidden agenda.
Meaningful accountability in exchange for greater flexibility to serve students has always been the bargain for charter schools — and DC charters, as a whole, have lived up to that bargain.
There is a point, however, when accountability requirements are nothing more than bureaucracy-builders or political bargaining chips. Students should learn in safe, culturally competent environments with the level of rigor and opportunities necessary to achieve their hopes and dreams upon graduation. For far too many DC students who look like me and are from similar neighborhoods to the ones that I grew up in, they are not being provided with that chance. Students are counting on us to make DC not only the best city for education in the country but, more importantly, the best system of education for them.
We hope the DC Council will consult and listen to school leaders as they consider what new requirements would truly add to the public’s understanding of school performance and what would simply be exercises in compliance.
Chibundu is the eldest son of two Nigerian-born immigrants. He grew up on the south side of Houston, TX attending schools as a Free and Reduced Lunch recipient. Growing up on Fondren and Bellfort, there was no way that his parents would let him spend most of his days on the playground. The community was too violent and unstable. So they moved the family, not to BelAir, but to the suburbs of Houston (Missouri City, TX) to ensure that their family had a better shot at a quality education. Not until graduation, was his high school (Elkins High School) recognized for the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Honor.
Chibundu lives in Washington, DC with his phenomenal wife. They reside in Ward 6 near the H Street corridor and NOMA. He currently serves as the Manager of Advocacy and Policy at FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools). He advocates for policies that support, strengthen and improve the DC charter sector so that all kids can have access to a quality education. Chibundu has spent his life fighting for diversity, equality, justice, and inclusion. He is passionate about every child attending a quality school with quality instruction and in a quality seat. He believes that the disparity in the opportunity gap is one of the social justice issues of our generation.
Chibundu earned his Juris Doctor and MBA with a concentration in Nonprofit Associations, Real Estate, and Strategy & Entrepreneurship from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law and Cox School of Business. He is also an esteemed graduate of THE Ohio State University where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with minors in Spanish and African/African American Studies. He is a proud of alum of the Hillary Clinton 2016 Presidential Campaign.
He exercises servant leadership through his continued involvement with Reach and being on the Arena Stage Young Patrons Board, the Capital Partners for Education Mentor Leadership Council, and the board for Gameplan. As an avid politico, you can find him discussing politics at large, analyzing the finer aspects of football, speaking about the greatness of Jay Z, espousing his disdain for racism, both subtle and overt, privilege and having nuanced discussions about sociology, especially as it relates to class and education.
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @StringerBunz. He loves civil and intelligent conversations, but also knows how to use the block button for the ignorance and foolishness; in-person conversations are the best!