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Ramona Edelin: Charter schools already lead on accountability, but they also need autonomy, adequate funding

By Commentary – Published on Apr 1, 2019

An ostensibly well-meaning, sensible-sounding piece of proposed legislation — the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 — is now being pushed in the DC Council. Ward 6 member Charles Allen sponsored the bill, with co-introducers Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh and Elissa Silverman. But there seems to be little concern that this bill, if passed, would be illegal, since the existing DC School Reform Act frees charter schools of government intrusion.

Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

First, some background. Public school students in the District are educated in two types of schools. About half are enrolled in the traditional system, DC Public Schools (DCPS), The other half are educated at tuition-free, taxpayer-funded public charter schools, open to all DC-resident students regardless of neighborhood or academic ability. Charters operate independently of DCPS and are held to strong academic, school governance and legal standards by DC’s independent charter board. Board members are appointed by the mayor and council members.

Council member Allen’s proposed law would intervene in the space between the District’s charter schools and their regulator, the Public Charter School Board. The board holds charter schools accountable for improved student performance, while current DC law ensures charters are free to innovate to achieve those better results. 

In the council member’s opinion, greater accountability for public charter schools would be achieved by compelling autonomous charters to fulfill public-record requests and comply with open meeting laws, which under current DC law apply to the Public Charter School Board but not charter schools. 

The controversial legislation also would require charters:

  • to disclose non-public fundraising;
  • to publish all employees’ names and salaries;
  • to accept two teacher representatives (and, for high schools or adult education centers, one student) on their boards; and
  • to list all school contracts, regardless of amount.

Charters would not be compensated for the costs of implementing these requirements, and they would have to bear the consequences of disclosing the currently confidential information of staff and contractors. Compliance, therefore, means charters would have to divert scarce schooling resources for information that does nothing to increase student access to a high-quality education.

The District’s public charter school law is nationally recognized as a guarantee of high-quality public school choice, with extensive regulatory oversight of the schools that the charter board approves to open and allows to continue to operate. DC’s law rates ninth out of 44 states with public charter schools on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranking, which notes that it includes “an independent charter board as the authorizer, and provides a fair amount of autonomy and accountability.”

The record of DC charters in improving student performance is at an all-time high. The share of charter students meeting state college- and career-readiness benchmarks has increased every year since the citywide PARCC standardized tests were introduced, as they did under the old, less academically rigorous DC-CAS exams. 

Charter schools have higher proficiency rates on these tests than similarly nonselective traditional DC public schools do among African American students and among those who are considered at-risk — homeless, in foster care, eligible for food stamps or welfare, or overaged and undercredited. Charter schools have boosted high school graduation rates, which are higher in charters than the city average — both for students as a whole and, significantly, for economically disadvantaged students.

DC public charter schools are held accountable as schools of choice — families must actively choose them rather than simply being automatically enrolled, as is the case with DCPS schools of right. A plethora of school-quality information is available via the websites of the charter board and the DC school lottery, through which most DCPS and charter schools enroll students. 

The charter board rigorously assesses DC’s charters and can remove their right to operate. Charters are also subject to higher audit standards than are imposed on the District’s traditional public schools. For example, the board independently verifies charter graduation and attendance rates, providing data families can depend upon — in contrast to the self-serving inflation of graduation numbers recently revealed in DCPS.

By building a burdensome bureaucracy, the proposed law strikes at the heart of the foundation of charters’ success: namely, the ability to provide stronger public school options in return for flexibility. 

DC’s charters have dramatically increased the number of high-quality school seats, yet this old-fashioned top-down approach — which governed DC public education before charters arrived — does nothing to further raise access of students to these programs.

As nonprofits, charters have delivered on the emergency call put out by the government to rescue public education. But other DC nonprofits that also deliver vital public services would not be subject to these restrictions.

The timing of this push for new legislation is also odd considering a new initiative recently announced by the charter board. This requires each charter school to publish notice of any meetings that are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of its five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students, among other new requirements.

Already, the city allocates fewer dollars per student to public charter schools — $7 vs. $10 for DCPS schools — despite their enrollment of a higher share of economically disadvantaged students. The city also discriminates against charter students, a higher proportion of whom are from minority groups, in terms of school facilities funds and city services for schools. Council member Allen doesn’t address these inequalities while proposing new unfunded mandates.

This new bill would cost charters scarce time and money, threatening improved student performance, especially for the most disadvantaged. Is it accountability that concerns its sponsors — or the healthy, vigorous competition that charters provide DCPS?

Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

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