A proposal to force charter schools to post more information to their websites has exposed a long-simmering debate in the District: Should traditional public schools and charter schools have to follow the same rules?
The conversation unfolding in the District — where nearly half of the city’s public school students attend charters — reflects roiling tensions nationally between supporters of the traditional public school systems and backers of robust charter sectors.
In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike last month and used it as an opportunity to bring attention to what the educators union viewed as charter schools draining resources from the traditional public school system.
The debate in the District focuses on how much access the public should have to data and information from charter schools, which are funded by taxpayer dollars but privately operated.
“They are public schools, and they should be equally public and accountable,” said Scott Goldstein, executive director of EmpowerEd, a teacher advocacy group that is circulating a petition calling on charter schools to be more transparent. “The community wants to engage and be part of the conversation.”
The more than 100 charter schools in the District are regulated by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which is considering whether to compel charter campuses to post more data and information on their websites — a move it says is intended to make school information more accessible. Under the rules, charter schools, which are run by their own boards, would have to publicize when those boards meet and detail how they plan to spend money that is given to schools — traditional and charter — to provide additional services to the city’s most vulnerable children.
But some parents, teachers and education activists have contended that the proposal does not go far enough and say charter schools should share the same information with the public as the traditional system does. They have latched onto the proposal from the D.C. Public Charter School Board and are demanding that charters be subject to public information and open meeting laws.
Individual charter schools are not subject to public records requests, although the D.C. Public Charter School Board — and the information that individual charter schools share with the board — is. Each charter school is operated by a board of directors, whose meetings are generally not open to the public.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board’s meetings are open and streamed online to the public.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said the proposed rules are a starting point. The board has listened to public testimony and met with residents, including Goldstein, about the policy and plans to present a revised draft at its February board meeting.
“Transparency about charter schools has long been a priority of the Public Charter School Board,” Pearson wrote in an email. “Our draft transparency policy is part of that ongoing effort and was developed with the input of parents, community members, and charter schools.”
But Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the District is an anomaly and in most jurisdictions, the public can attend charter school board meetings — and request records from individual schools.
He said a similar push also exists in California to make charter schools subject to transparency laws.
Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is encouraged by the charter board’s proposal but said more must be done.
“Transparency is vital to our public school system and it is critical to ensuring the needs of our students are met,” Kihn said.
When charters were created, one of the objectives was to free the schools from the bureaucratic thicket that ensnares traditional schools, Ziebarth said. So they shouldn’t have to abide by all the same rules as traditional public schools, he said.
Still, his charter advocacy group pushes for jurisdictions to subject their charters to open meeting and record laws.
“D.C. is an exception to the rule on that front,” he said.
At a D.C. Public Charter School Board hearing on the proposal last week, residents and teachers said they wanted to better understand how charter schools spend their money. Many of the teachers who testified work at the Columbia Heights campus of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy network. The board of that school, which has dwindling enrollment, abruptly announced the Columbia Heights campus would close next school year in a bid to strengthen the financial health of the Cesar Chavez network.
One parent whose child attends a D.C. charter school said he likes his son’s teachers and wants to know how much they earn. The school allows parents to donate to a teacher bonus fund, and he wants to ensure that the school is not paying charter operators big fees at the expense of teachers.
Teachers in the traditional public school system are unionized, and their salaries are publicly posted. Individual teacher salaries in the charter sector are not made public, but the median pay for teachers is released. The school’s highest-paid employees are listed on tax forms the public can obtain.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said she fought for a contract that would boost the pay of teachers in the traditional public school system in 2017. The mayor increased school funding, and a large part of that boost went toward the higher salaries in the contract.
Davis said she was dismayed to learn that the charter sector received the same funding increase but was not forced to spend it on teacher pay increases. She wants to know how much of that money went to paying teachers more.
“I thought it was outrageous,” Davis said. “It is not even coming close to being what the city expects from schools.”