Testimony of Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change, to the D.C. Council Committee on Education and Committee of the Whole
Testimony on the “Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019”
Written Testimony for public meeting held October 2, 2019
Presented by Allyson Criner Brown, MPA
Associate Director, Teaching for Change
1832 11 St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001
Greetings Members of the Council:
My name is Allyson Criner Brown and I am the Associate Director of Teaching for Change, a DC-based nonprofit whose work is building social justice, starting in the classroom. I am also a resident of Ward 8 and a DCPS parent at Anne Beers Elementary in Ward 7. Additionally, I serve as the Teaching for Change representative to the Coalition for DC Public Schools and Communities (C4DC).
Teaching for Change is a D.C.-based nonprofit that has been building social justice starting in the classroom for going on 30 years and has a nationally recognized approach to family engagement called the Tellin’ Stories Project. We partner directly with seven Title I DC Public Schools that serve more than 2,500 students in Wards 1, 2, 4, and 5. Our other major projects that engage thousands of educators across the region – including hundreds of DCPS and D.C. charter school teachers from all eight wards – include our Teaching Central America Project, the Zinn Education Project (teaching people’s history), Teach the Beat (bringing go go into pre-K through 12 classrooms) and the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice network.
As I have already mentioned, we partner with and for years have directly served both DCPS and D.C. charter school communities and educators. In deciding whether to testify on this bill, we looked to our core beliefs, which include:
- We believe that schools belong to the community and its institutions. This should be reflected by a respectful working partnership between each school and its community on issues such as governance, curriculum, professional development, research, and staffing.
- We believe that all aspects of school reform should keep equity at the center. This entails examining each issue through the lens of race, class and gender, and being willing to institute equity measures to create a level playing field for all involved.
- To make change, we must build alliances across social barriers, organize and hold the system accountable at every level.
In short, we believe the key elements of this bill will benefit students, families, charter schools as educational institutions, the communities they serve, and the public good for all Washingtonians:
- FOIA and open meetings compliance, and the training to meet these obligations;
- Requiring teacher representation on the board, and an older student where applicable;
- Publishing information about contracts greater than $25,000; and
- Making teacher and staff salaries public knowledge.
While this is a tempting moment to wax poetic on the debate around charters, school choice, and public education, we will instead start with an indisputable fact: charter schools are a key feature of public education in Washington, D.C., educating nearly half of the District’s public school population. And charter schools are the only other organizations in our local democracy that have accepted the unique charge that is given to DC Public Schools – to serve as the institutions that educate the city’s children using publicly funded dollars, and to be assessed by the same criteria.
Given this unique charge, transparency and accountability must accompany the public resources that come with the (public) students. Public accountability must go beyond test scores, graduation rates, and ESSA stars. Pro-choice and pro-charter advocates (including, the D.C. Public Charter School and its executive director, Scott Pearson, FOCUS, and others) have long touted the mantra that “charter schools ARE public schools.” Currently this is not the case when it comes to transparency and accountability, which this law seeks to rectify.
As many others will argue today, D.C. is far behind its state peers who authorize charters when it comes to transparency and accountability. The strongest argument for this bill may come from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools – of which the DCPCSB is a member – which *literally* wrote the Model Law for Supporting the Growth of High-Quality Charter Schools (2016).
The model charter school law for states references the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings laws very clearly in three specific instances:
- Essential components of the model charter school law: Automatic Exemptions From Many State and District Laws and Regulations, except for those covering health, safety, civil rights, student accountability, employee criminal history checks, open meetings, freedom of information requirements, and generally accepted accounting principles. (p. 14)
- Governing board requirements: Charter public school governing boards shall be subject to and comply with state open meetings and freedom of information laws. (p. 30)
- Powers of Charter Schools – Applicability of Other Laws, Rules, and Regulations: Charter public school governing boards shall be subject to and comply with state open meetings and freedom of information laws. (p. 67)
Furthermore, we (Teaching for Change) were pleased to see that the bill being debated today includes provisions for the Office of Open Government to provide training regarding FOIA obligations and the Open Meetings Act to charter school employees and board members. The bill also requires the Public Charter School Board to submit the number and costs for requests annually so the Council may assess the “burden” of fulfilling these requests.
We adamantly support the requirements to publish the information about contracts greater than $25,000. We are a nonprofit that receives contracts from both DCPS and charter schools for teacher professional development. We fully support transparency of major contracts funded with public dollars, and we believe the $25,000 threshold is reasonable.
We wholeheartedly back the provision requiring charter schools to seat at least two educators from the staff on the board of trustees, as well as an older student for those serving high school and above. There are charter schools in D.C. and nationwide who already do this. It is a reasonable practice that should apply to all public LEAs.
At Teaching for Change, we are admittedly open to further discussion about the requirement to post individual teacher and staff names alongside their position and salary. We believe the public should readily have access to salaries by position for LEAs and individual schools, and that this transparency benefits educators and students. Considering that research has shown that teachers are the most important school-related factor in student achievement, this aspect of the bill should not be overlooked. Transparency around teacher/staff pay is already available for DCPS and will not interfere with charter operations, choices around curriculum, or other areas where charter schools enjoy autonomy. We believe this measure will strengthen teaching and learning across the District.
We welcome a greater dialogue about ways to improve transparency and accountability in DC Public Schools as well as in charter schools, but the bill before us today is focused on at the minimum, catching D.C. up to speed with regards to accountability and transparency for its charter schools.
Our children, the charter schools in our city, the communities they serve, and public education across the District will be in a stronger position with these accountability and transparency measures in place.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify today.