Transparency Advocates Unsuccessful As D.C. Council Adds Only Small Changes In New Charter School Legislation

Legislation to shore up oversight of charter schools’ finances went quietly through the D.C. Council this June, though without requirements for the schools to follow open meetings and public records laws as advocates urged at the bill’s public hearing almost a year ago.

The District’s 115 charter schools, enrolling 45 percent of the District’s students at a cost this coming year of over $720 million District tax dollars, are overseen not by the mayor or D.C. Council but by an independent “charter authorizer” called the Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

Financial scandals at several schools in 2013-2014 led to the legislative proposal to give the PCSB more tools for overseeing schools’ major outside contracts and board members’ conflicts of interest.

Testimony by the Open Government Coalition and others at the October 2015 hearing brought to light the limits of transparency in this burgeoning parallel education universe.

Only the Public Charter School Board is subject to the openness requirements in D.C. law; the 65 charter operators (nonprofit corporations) and their schools are not.  The model state charter law put forward by charter experts, and the charter statutes in many states, include charters and their boards within open meetings and public records laws, and often add financial disclosure laws as well. The D.C. law predates most such laws and contains none of those assurances of public access to information. One of the original authors of the D.C. law told the Council, "we just didn't think of it. We never imagined the charter system would grow as it has."

The board’s website answers a Frequently Asked Question about getting school information this way: “To retrieve school-specific data, you must contact each individual school,” without noting also that the school has no obligation to respond.

The charter board supported the narrow legislation introduced early in 2015 but not the advocates’ request to bring charters fully under the existing District laws requiring access to meetings and records. School staffs threatened damage to their education mission if such transparency produced a crush of burdensome requests, though actually the Charter School Board received only 40 records requests in the latest full year 2014-15. 

The Council unanimously voted June 28 for the “Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act” (Bill B21-115) and the mayor signed it into law June 21 as Act A21-465.  It will take effect after it's sent to Capitol Hill and waits for the review period of 30 congressional workdays.