Should charter schools be subject to the same transparency and open-record laws as campuses in the traditional public school system? Or would the potential bureaucratic and legal challenges of fulfilling these requests bog down charter schools, which are sometimes small organizations that educate a few hundred students?
Public record requests — often known by the acronym FOIA, for Freedom of Information Act — are used by journalists, residents and organizations to obtain government information and data not easily accessible, including messages that officials send via government email accounts.
The debate over charter schools and transparency has taken center stage in D.C. education circles in recent months. One outcome of that: The D.C. Council has been weighing competing proposals to give the public greater access to the inner workings of the city’s expansive charter sector.
“I support increased transparency for all D.C. public schools, because without it we are left in the dark,” said Frazier O’Leary, the Ward 4 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.
Last week’s hearing before the D.C. Council centered on a proposed measure that would allow the public to submit FOIAs to individual charter schools — something that can’t be done now. The bill would also require charter schools to make their governing board meetings open to the public.
Charter schools in D.C. are exempt from the public records law, although the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which authorizes the city’s 123 charter schools, is subject to it.
“The process of FOIA takes time and focus off the students and off the operations of the school — and this is the fundamental issue we have with the bill,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter board. “It will do nothing to improve student achievement. Instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent.”
The debate reflects tensions unfolding nationally between the charter and traditional school sectors — tensions that have intensified in the District since D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced his proposal in March to subject individual charter schools to the public records law.
In March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a law requiring charter schools to follow the same rules governing public records, open meetings and conflicts of interest that pertain to traditional public school systems.
Some D.C. education leaders have pointed out that charter sectors are structured differently in various jurisdictions and argue that comparing D.C. laws with transparency rules in other cities and states may be unfair.
Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told The Washington Post this year that in most jurisdictions, the public can attend charter-school board meetings and request records from individual schools. That makes the lack of access in the District unusual, he said.
All parties at last week’s hearing seemed to agree that charter schools should be transparent, but the debate split over how much additional sunshine is needed.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board says it has tried to remedy transparency concerns by passing revamped regulations this year, requiring schools to publish online the minutes of board meetings and the salaries of their five highest-paid employees.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, has also introduced legislation addressing transparency in public schools. His measure would require charter schools to open their board meetings to the public but would not subject individual charter schools to public record requests. The bill would also require campuses in both sectors to be more transparent about how they use their money. That measure passed the education committee this week and awaits consideration by the full council.
Allen’s bill — which does not yet have enough support to guarantee passage — goes further, requiring charter schools to be subject to public record requests.
“The bill is meant to ensure that students, parents and teachers have the same tools and rights no matter what public school they choose,” Allen said at the hearing last week. “For me, transparent, accountable government is simply a matter of principle.”
Allen’s bill had the backing of dozens of residents, parents, teachers and advocacy organizations in attendance. They argued that charter schools use taxpayer dollars to educate children and should be required to fulfill public record requests.
“When I attend community meetings regarding charter schools, they are quick to inform you that they are public schools funded by D.C. taxpayer dollars,” Darrell Gaston, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southeast Washington, testified at the hearing. “Charter schools are also quick to remind you that they are independent and should not be held to the same standards as traditional public schools.”
Charter leaders said it is not feasible to comply with public record laws. They said that their staffs are already overworked and that resources should be dedicated to children, not public record requests.
But some, including Allen, pushed back and said that other government agencies are able to comply with public records without dedicated FOIA officers and that charter schools should be able to do the same.
Allen’s measure calls for the D.C. Public Charter School Board to provide support to charter schools if they need help fulfilling requests. It also would require the city to provide training to school staffs on completing public record requests.
Niya White, principal at Center City Public Charter School in Congress Heights, said that if the public records measure is adopted, she believes her school would need to hire an additional staff member to comply. She said that staff members already work tirelessly to address the trauma that many students face and that being mandated to comply with public record laws feels like a distraction. Some charter school leaders said they fear being bombarded with politically motivated FOIA requests — a fear that organizations in favor of the law say is unfounded.
“With these students, we are triaging them from the second they walk in the doors,” White said in an interview. “If we are going to talk about where I am going to spend my time, then it has to be on that, and not on answering document requests from people who may not be concerned with what’s happening inside our doors.”
Charter leaders argue that they already publish troves of data on their websites and that they are unclear what data the public wants that is not already available.
City leaders, residents and teachers have debated for months what expanded access to public records would accomplish, especially considering that so many documents would be blacked out for privacy reasons. Allen said when problems emerge, public records can help people determine which protocols were followed and which were not.
“At the heart of today, I am wondering what information is needed that we do not currently have access to,” Grosso said at the hearing, “and how that information is vital to ensuring that our students are safe, loved and academically engaged and challenged.”