Valerie Jablow Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

I am Valerie Jablow, a 14-year DCPS parent.

In March 2019, parents at DCI, a DC charter school, apparently received an electronic message from the school[1] asking them to oppose Bill 0199, the subject of today’s hearing–to ensure that FOIA and the open meetings act apply to all publicly funded schools in DC.

That message was apparently sent by the DCI communications manager. Publicly available information did not provide this person’s duties, salary, or its source–nor could I avail myself of this by FOIA. But it would seem this person is being paid by the school to lobby.

By comparison, my children’s DCPS schools have been staffed by people whose entire jobs are dedicated to student safety, wellbeing, and education, while advocacy has been undertaken by unpaid, and otherwise unsupported, parent volunteers like me.[2]

Yet, I and other parents have been almost always outnumbered by such paid influencers who, in addition to mobilizing electronically, regularly flood the halls of this building to oppose our knowledge about, and involvement in, DC’s publicly funded schools.

We now know why: A recent City Paper story[3] showed that DC charters and education reform interests have engaged in a massive lobbying effort to ensure they garner public school resources while limiting public knowledge and involvement.

Worse, that lobbying has been funded in part by taxpayer dollars intended for the safety, wellbeing, and education of our kids!

Having FOIA and open meetings for all our publicly funded schools is thus a mere start to leveling this tilted playing field. We need just ONE law to require both FOIA and open meetings for all our schools. This is not too costly: Last year, DCPS and the charter board fielded less than 300 FOIA requests. The cost for FOIA requests in the entire DC government was $3 million–out of a $14 BILLION budget.

And yet, here we are, debating yet again these basic tools of democracy like it’s democratic to purposely exclude the public from the institutions and agencies it funds! It’s not enough to rely on the charter board to gather and disseminate information because no one here today can possibly know what someone, somewhere, may need to know. (They’re authorizers, not Santa Claus.)

For all the “burden” DC charter schools may face from FOIA requests, who is accounting for the burden of that shadow army of influencers and lobbyists, paid by public funds to oppose the public?

And who is accounting for the burden of years that I and thousands of other DC parents and community members have spent, all on our own dime, seeking out information about our public schools, only to be told little or nothing?

Here are a few recent examples[4]:

–No publicly available list of sexual assault policies or incidents at DC charter schools;

–No publicly available information about playground lead tests for any DC charter school;

–No publicly available needs analyses for individual DC charter school applications; and

–No mandatory public disclosure of charter board members’ sources of income, other finances, and potential conflicts of interest.

Keeping information about our public schools from the public isn’t innovation or cost-saving—it’s deceit and has no place in a democracy. Please pass Bill 0199. Thank you.

[1] https://twitter.com/dcteachersunite/status/1177187545228226566

[2] To be sure, this has resulted in terrible inequities of representation, wherein schools with parents who can show up to testify, call, email, protest get heard—and those that lack such parents don’t get heard. Here’s a blog post I wrote exactly 4 years ago on this subject of power imbalance at the Wilson Bldg.:

Parent Engagement in Schools: Part 3

[3] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/21085439/how-charter-schools-won-dc-politics

[4] There are many more examples of how disconnected DC taxpayers are from the schools that we collectively pay more than $2 BILLION funding annually, which I outlined in my testimony in June 2019:

–All videos of charter board meetings before 2018 are gone, with no back-ups. For some meetings, there are just notes, not official transcripts.

–At risk fund reports for charter schools do not account for all schools, and uses of the money appear wildly different and not always appropriate.

–FOIA requests made clear that the executive director of the charter board urged the schools his agency regulates to lobby against the discipline bill.

–FOIA requests also revealed that education leaders privately planned a middle school at Banneker–well before the council’s decision on a middle school for Shaw there.

–There are no public records of visits to the mayor and council, while an ed reform-supported group (not registered as a lobbying organization) buys council members and staff breakfast and lunch every year.

–More than a quarter of all charter board meetings between October 18, 2017, and October 31, 2018 were closed to the public.

–Teacher turnover within our schools is only self-reported at best–and not accurately.

–Chavez and Monument charter schools closed without parents or teachers involved in the decisions while Mundo Verde blocked parents from entering and hired a consultant to intimidate unionizing teachers.

—Sexual abuse in one school’s aftercare exposed lack of OSSE oversight in vetting aftercare employees elsewhere.

–There is no publicly available explanation as to how no other city agency had any use for Ferebee-Hope.

–No publicly available advertising of education budget meetings this summer.

 

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