Testimony of Danica Petroshius
Hearing on the Public School Transparency Act of 2019
October 2, 2019
I am a parent of two at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan. I am also a taxpayer of every DC local education agency – all 67 of them. As a taxpayer of every single school in our entire public system, I ask that every public school be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Public School Transparency Act of 2019 that ensures all local education agencies are subject to FOIA should pass unanimously and swiftly.
There are four fundamental reasons to support FOIA for all schools – reasons that no red-herring excuse of cost, bureaucracy or paperwork v performance argument can overcome.
The Grand Promise of Charters Should Not Be at the Expense of Transparency, Health, Safety and Accountability
Charters rightly have the flexibility and autonomy to determine their own curriculum, hiring and internal structures. They should not have any autonomy or flexibility when it comes to safety, health, transparency and accountability. FOIA is not an every day activity. It is a backstop – when health, safety and accountability protections fail and parents need to gain understanding. This backstop should not stop at the Public Charter School Board door. FOIA must apply to the local education agency and school levels. Having been part of a community stung by the cruelty of sexual misconduct, I can confirm: FOIA at the local education agency and school levels matters when the system fails our children.
Charter Schools Are Public Agencies – Public Agencies Are Subject to FOIA
We have a unique situation in DC where charter schools get to wear two hats. On the one hand, DC charter schools are designated non-profits. This allows them to raise private money and have boards that help raise money and oversee them – things that schools in DCPS cannot do. Non-profits are not subject to FOIA, so we hear from charter “leaders” that their non-profit status automatically exempts them from FOIA. However, unlike other non-profits, DC charter schools have another – very important – designation – they are also a “local education agency” which is a fancy name for school district. A local education agency is a public agency in every sense. This designation is critical and fully embraced by DC charter schools and charter “leaders” because it allows them to access tens millions of dollars in federal Title I, Title II, Title III and IDEA funding, as well as additional state and local funding. Non-profits are NOT eligible for these same federal, government public dollars – ONLY public local education agencies are. When charter leaders accept these dollars, they accept that they are public agencies, including following audit and accountability rules. When it comes to receiving these federal dollars, there is no difference between DCPS and charter schools. When it comes to public dollars, DC Charter Schools welcome the public agency designation. As taxpayers locally and nationally, parents want public agencies to be subject to strict transparency, including FOIA, and the public agency designation should trump the non-profit designation.
Parents and Kids Never Signed Their Rights Away to FOIA When They Enrolled in a Charter School.
Parents don’t care about sectors. They care about a school that is a fit for their child. They also ASSUME that every public school meets the same transparency, healthy , safety and accountability standards. The fact that charter schools – as local education agencies – are NOT subject to FOIA is incomprehensible. As you know, I’m a DCPS parent. I have the right to FOIA. My fellow charter parents? Their rights have been taken away – and they are not happy about it. Listen to what a charter parent, Alex Nock, says:
“I was shocked to learn that I could not request information through FOIA from the charter school my daughter attends. Being able to request information from the school which your child attends, even if you have to resort to using the FOIA process, is a basic right that every parent should have. If a charter school refuses to respond to a parent request, that parent has no recourse on an issue affecting the future of their child without FOIA. That is simply wrong and flies in the face of the transparency to which our public schools should be held.”
PCSB FOIA Is Not Enough
We have also heard that the Public Charter School Board is subject to FOIA and that is enough. Ask any parent that has had their child’s services denied, impacted by sexual misconduct or pushed out of a school whether a FOIA to the PCSB is enough. It is not. Only the emails, Slack conversations, texts and meeting notes of the adults in the schools will provide the information needed to understand and support the rights of every child. PCSB does not have access to any of that. Remember, FOIA is a backstop. It is not an every day occurrence. But when a child has been wronged, the moment when the schools have every incentive NOT to be transparent, every parent has a right to get all of the information they need to understand, and fight back, to improve circumstances for their child and every other child.
We cannot continue to deny full transparency to almost half of the parents and children in our public schools. To parents across the city, the Public School Transparency Act is a must do, overdue bill. Please act swiftly to pass it.