Parents must know how D.C.’s charter schools spend public money
By Chioma Oruh and LaJoy Johnson-Law
Chioma Oruh is a D.C. Public Schools parent. LaJoy Johnson-Law is the parent of a student who attends Rocketship RISE Academy Public Charter School. Both work with Advocates for Justice and Education, an organization that advocates for D.C.’s children and youth with disabilities.
Charter schools educate nearly half of Washington’s public school students and receive a total of nearly $900 million in public funding each year. So why are parents, teachers, journalists and the public kept in the dark about how they spend that money?
That’s right, the District’s charter school transparency policies fall woefully short of nationwide standards.
California recently passed new legislation requiring charter schools to follow the same laws governing open meetings and public records that apply to public school districts. That makes it one of 39 states to do so.
D.C. policy requires neither, allowing the public, including parents, to attend only meetings held by the D.C. Public Charter School Board and request only public records that the board collects.
That’s why the D.C. Council must seriously consider the bill proposed in mid-March by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) that would hold charter schools to the same level of transparency as traditional, neighborhood schools.
As parents of children in the D.C. public school system, we find the lack of transparency deeply troubling. We want our children to learn by example, and silencing parent and public voices betrays democracy. When we don’t know how money is being spent and what is and what isn’t being prioritized, we can’t advocate alongside teachers and administrators for our children.
This is especially so for parents of students with disabilities, who already find it difficult to determine how public funds are spent on resources such as special education teachers, books, specific learning material and specialists.
In fact, current policies perpetuate the massive inequity within and among the District’s public schools, including neighborhood, charter and magnet schools. The majority of charter schools are in Wards 5, 7 and 8; Ward 3 has none. Because charter schools are not held to the same transparency standards as neighborhood schools, this means access to public information is unevenly distributed across the District.
Additionally, a lack of transparency can lead to sudden, unexpected changes for students and parents, many of whom already experience much uncertainty in their lives.
In January, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, one of the District’s oldest and most prominent charter networks, announced that it will close one of its middle school campuses at the end of the school year. Some parents found out by seeing news of the closure on television.
Because Chavez’s board meetings are closed to the public, the school community was kept in the dark about its financial woes. Parents were robbed of the opportunity to join hands with the teachers, staff and administrators in finding a community-based solution to keep the campus open.
At Advocates for Justice and Education, we’ve seen firsthand how school closures can harm students. We serve many families with students facing adverse life challenges, including poverty and homelessness. Some have trouble finding special education services because of their children’s suspected or confirmed learning disabilities, behavioral health challenges and complex medical needs.
When a school closes, many families, particularly those who are economically insecure and bear the brunt of the equity gap, are forced into a frenzy to find another school. For these families, transparency in public education is not an ideal to be aspired to but a requisite for a pathway to economic security.
In the aftermath of the Chavez closure, the D.C. Public Charter School Board passed a new transparency policy, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The District must catch up with California and the majority of states that allow the public to attend charter school board meetings. And D.C.’s charter school operators should be required to disclose all information that neighborhood schools must disclose.
Then, the District should follow the lead of some states that have empowered parents and the public to know more about charter school board members.
Current policy requires operators to disclose only the names of board members and contact information for at least the positions of chair and vice chair. We deserve to know more about who is making decisions about educating our children, especially if they live outside of the District, as some board members do.
City leaders should embrace Allen’s proposed bill, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) should provide funding, if needed, to ensure that it can be enforced.
This would be the real leadership that our families deserve, and it would be a model of democracy in action for our children.