Committee on Whole and Education
Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Suzanne Wells. I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.
It is a sad state of affairs that the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 even had to be introduced. Transparency is a key feature in any free and open society. Because there has been no willingness, and even resistance, from the public charter school sector and its advocates to comply with the basic provisions of the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Public School Transparency Amendment Act had to be introduced.
The Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 would require any District of Columbia public charter school, including its Board of Trustees, to comply with FOIA, and the Open Meetings Act. Both FOIA and the Open Meetings Act play an important role in keeping our public institutions transparent and accountable. They are common sense acts that we depend on in our democracy. With almost half of the students being educated today by public charter schools, it is vitally important that public charter school families be afforded the same protections offered by FOIA and the Open Meetings Act that DCPS parents have. In addition, the public charter schools receive over $800 million in funding, and it is vitally important that there be transparency and accountability in how our tax dollars are spent.
You will likely hear today from some people who believe requiring public charter schools to comply with FOIA and the Open Meetings Act will be a burden for the public charter schools and divert public charter school leaders time away from running their schools. No data have been presented to back up these claims. Even if compliance with these laws did require public charter school leaders to devote time to complying with them, that time is well spent if it results in greater transparency and accountability in how children are treated.
One charter advocacy representative expressed concerns FOIAs will be filed simply to satisfy someone’s “curiosity.” My observations have been just the opposite. People file FOIAs when they have serious concerns about something. For example, the recent allegations of sexual misconduct at Capitol Hill Montessori have shown how important it is to be able to obtain information from Local Education Agencies (LEAs) on compliance with background checks. Because parents in the public charter school sector cannot request this type of information, they learn about sexual misconduct allegations when The Washington Post chooses to publish an article about the alleged allegations. Parents may have a need to learn more about a school’s special education or discipline practices. Without FOIA and the Open Meetings Act, it can be difficult or impossible to gather this type of information.
Earlier this year, the Public Charter School Board updated its School Transparency Policy, and is requiring certain information such as student and employee policies be maintained on the individual charter schools’ websites. This policy seems to be in response to calls for greater transparency, but simply does not provide the same type of information that could be obtained through FOIA.
There was a hearing earlier this year on the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Act. That Act would require the public charter schools to comply with the Open Meetings Act, but not with FOIA. I urge the Council to address the issues of transparency and accountability comprehensively. The Council is scheduled to mark up the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Act soon. These two bills should not proceed on parallel tracks, but rather should both be considered so that one Act can address the deficiencies we currently have with openness and transparency in the public charter school sector.