The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A D.C. charter school bill aims to fix a system that isn’t broken

The Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington on Jan. 8.
The Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington on Jan. 8. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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THE DISTRICT’S charter school sector has been largely untouched as charter school opponents across the country have waged an increasingly relentless campaign against them. That is mainly due to the enormous popularity of the schools that enroll nearly half of the District’s public school students and the effective oversight provided by the Public Charter School Board. Unfortunately, though, there are troubling signs of an effort to undermine the city’s charter schools by imposing requirements that would threaten the independence that is central to their success.

The opening volley in this effort is legislation being promoted as a well-meaning effort at transparency and accountability. Sponsored by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the measure would subject the independent nonprofit charter schools to the open-meetings and Freedom of Information Act requirements that apply to D.C. government entities.

We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation — which seems to be taken from the national teachers union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools — is not designed to benefit the public or help students. It ignores the fact that the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 123 public charter schools, is already subject to both the open-meetings law and freedom-of-information requests. The board, which has earned national renown for the rigor of its standards, requires charters to disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources. Charters participate in state testing and federal accountability programs, and the charter board leads the way in providing comprehensive evaluations of charters and the job they do in educating students.

Many charters, funded at just 70 percent of the level of traditional public schools, have small staffs, and the proposed bill would burden them with reporting requirements that don’t apply to other nonprofits that receive government funding. And, while backers of the legislation say they simply want the same rules for charters and traditional schools, they neglect to mention that many management decisions by the public school system are discussed and taken at the agency level and thus not really bound by strict open-meeting rules.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, acknowledged the problems caused when the public was caught unawares by the closing of Chavez Prep Middle school, and he has been working with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Education Committee Chairman David Grosso (I-At Large) on ways to deal with concerns. Among the ideas discussed: requiring a certain number of open meetings a year, including any that involve major decisions such as closing or shrinking a school, and identifying additional information that should be collected by the board.

It is telling that one bit of information sought in the legislation proposed by Mr. Allen — who seems not to have consulted with charter officials and declined to discuss the bill with us — is a listing of the names of all charter school employees and their salaries. It’s hard to see how that’s critical to student learning but easy to see how it might help unions in their bid to organize at charter schools.

Read more:

Mark Simon: Rethinking education reform in D.C.

Chioma Oruh and LaJoy Johnson-Law: Parents must know how D.C.’s charter schools spend public money

Colbert I. King: If D.C. really wants to improve public schools, treat the principals better

Lewis D. Ferebee: I will bring transparency and engagement to D.C. Public Schools

Patricia A. Brantley and Irene Holtzman: Charter schools deserve equal funding