In the wake of unexpected news that a prominent charter school is closing at the end of the school year, Washington, D.C.’s public education community is actively debating the issue of transparency.
Many parents, teachers, and education leaders are asking: how does D.C. compare to the rest of the country when it comes to charter school transparency policy?
In the Public Interest has begun the process of answering that question,* and has so far discovered a number of revealing facts:
D.C. lags behind the 39 states that require charter school operators or individual charter schools to comply with state open meetings laws and public records laws.
D.C. policy does not require open board meetings and only subjects its public records law to charter school authorizers and not operators or individual schools.
Thirty nine states, as diverse as Massachusetts and Alabama, and including both Maryland and Virginia, require operators or schools to hold open board meetings or post minutes of board meetings, and to respond to requests for public records.
A representative from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a charter school advocacy group, recently told the Washington Post, “D.C. is an exception to the rule on that front.”
California’s legislature recently passed a bill to subject charter schools to the same accountability and transparency laws that traditional, neighborhood schools must conform to. The state has experienced at least $149 million in fraud and waste by charter school operators, which is likely just the tip of the iceberg of the total figure.
Even Ohio has changed with the times. The state once called the “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers now has laws on the books increasing transparency above and beyond D.C.’s policies.
While D.C. has policy protecting public money from charter school board member conflicts-of-interest, it falls short of a large number of states.
D.C. policy requires the disclosing of information about conflicting interest contracts above a certain monetary threshold but does not require that board members file publicly available reports or be held to the same ethics standards as public officials.
States including Louisiana, Ohio, and nearby Virginia require board members to file publicly available financial disclosure or conflict-of-interest reports, or to abide by state ethics law for public officials.
D.C. is behind the cutting edge of states that have empowered parents and the public to access charter school board member information.
D.C. policy requires charter school operators to disclose only the names of board members and contact information for at least the positions of Chair and Vice Chair.
Some states require operators to divulge board member contact information or biographies on their websites, including Ohio and Minnesota, the state that passed the first charter school law in 1991. This helps parents and the broader public hold charter school board members, who are unelected, at least somewhat accountable for their decisions about spending public money.
* This research only considers state law. It does not account for local policy or additional state or local regulatory requirements. For example, while a state law may not require charter schools to abide by public records law, that does not necessarily mean that every charter school in the state does not follow public records laws. A school board or authorizer may require charter schools in the state to abide, or a charter school may voluntarily follow, public records laws.
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