Rebecca Reina and Emily Gasoi Testimony – DCPS SY2021 Budget Hearing

Joint testimony of

Rebecca Reina, Chair of the Ward 1 Education Council and

Emily Gasoi, State Board of Education, Ward 1 Representative

to the District of Columbus Public Schools Public Budget Hearing

Maury Elementary School

Tuesday, October, 29, 2019

I am Becky Reina, Chair of the Ward 1 Education Council. Our Education Council is a volunteer organization that brings together parents, educators, students, and community members to share information and to advocate for a stronger public education system that supports all our students and families, while ensuring we safeguard our by-right neighborhood schools and work for greater resources, equity, transparency, fairness, and safety across both public educational sectors. Thank you for this opportunity to testify on the DCPS budget. I am sharing this testimony with Emily Gasoi, the Ward 1 Representative on the State Board of Education. She will take up where I end today.

DCPS schools in Ward 1, like DCPS schools throughout the city, are struggling with their yearly budgets:

At the Ward 1 Education Council meeting in March, we asked for a show of hands from DCPS stakeholders whose schools were losing one or more staff position due to inadequate funding in their SY19-20 budget. Reps from ten of the twelve DCPS schools in attendance raised their hands (not all of them Ward 1 schools).

Cleveland, a Title 1 elementary school serving 310 students, 21% ELL and 51% At-Risk, does not have a general reading interventionist and has only two special education teachers to serve the entire school.

H.D. Cooke, a Title 1 elementary school serving 395 students, 46% ELL and 58% At-Risk, struggles to provide appropriate supports for its many English Language Learners.

Tubman, a Title 1 elementary school serving 566 students, 53% ELL and 63% At-Risk, lost eight positions going into this school year, despite an enrollment increase. Tubman was projected to have 534 students this fall and funded for that level, although enrollment has not been under 550 in years.

Bancroft ES was unable to cover the cost for two early childhood intervention staff positions in their initial budget. Bancroft is a Dual-Language school serving 550 students, 56% ELL and 35% At Risk.

CHEC, one of the largest schools in the city and a Title 1 educational campus serving 1,210 students, 35% ELL and 65% At Risk, sees its per-pupil funding go down each year. A CHEC staffer emailed: “If we can’t right-size our budget, we are looking at cutting 2 staff members and we won’t be able to hire the social worker and other essential support staff we so desperately need.”  He went on to explain that this will mean increasing class sizes for ELL students who need more, not less individualized attention. This will mean that the school’s one middle school social worker who last year was managing 7+ homeless referrals, 40 PGT referrals, 15 504 cases, 21 IEP cases and has administered 80 special education eligibility assessments, will continue to be stretched dangerously thin. And it will mean that some of our city’s most vulnerable students will continue to have referral wait times of 8 to 10 weeks to see a school-based therapist.

Cardozo EC, a 6th through 12th grade campus of 757 students, 44% ELL and 83% At-Risk, must figure out how to staff multiple, distinct programs with largely inflexible budgeting, while their International Academy student population falls precipitously – which is no surprise given the current national climate – and its 9th and 10th grade mainstream classes simultaneously swell.

Schools struggle with their operating budgets as well:

The Cardozo community alerted us to the fact that all DCPS schools must deal with a purchasing freeze period lasting over a month from late September to early November every year. While the budget office’s reasons vary yearly – this year it is Central Office staffing – the yearly Student Activities Fund and P Card freeze and the budget office’s unresponsiveness does not vary.

School facilities maintenance is inadequate:

Tubman has been waiting for an HVAC renovation and roof repair for three years.

Although Cardozo’s building is managed by RDW Consulting, neither DGS nor RDW responds to maintenance requests in a timely manner. Door locks and elevators remain broken.

Playground repairs requested by Cleveland last school year remain unfinished.

Lead abatement of pour-in-place playground surfaces remain unresolved throughout the city.

Holes remain in the Capital Improvements Plan:

Washington Metropolitan, the last unmodernized DCPS high school, has been dropped from the CIP without clarity on the future of that program.

Anna Beers Elementary School in Ward 7 is not in the Capital budget.

An additional Ward 7 middle school needs to be opened to feed Woodson HS and strengthen that feeder pattern.

Shaw Middle School at 800 Euclid St NW, needs to be added to the CIP to strengthen the Cardozo feeder pattern, improve DCPS middle grade programming, and continue the very strong DCPS enrollment gains in Ward 4 and alleviate crowding and impending crowding surrounding Ward 1 at Deal, Hardy, School Without Walls at Francis Stevens, and MacFarland Middle Schools.

Additionally, the Banneker HS modernization should not include a football field. That school and neighborhood communities both far prefer a track.

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Emily Gasoi will provide suggestions to these issues when she finishes this testimony.  Thank you.

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My name is Emily Gasoi and I am the Ward 1 Representative on the State Board of Education. As W1EC chair Becky Reina explained, I will pick up our testimony where she left off to discuss some of the broader issues underlying individual school struggles and to offer some solutions:

To start, there are several now predictable practices that cause general budget instability for our schools, making it difficult for them to invest the time and thought that budgeting decisions require.

  1. Last school year’s late release of school budgets and the unreasonably short turnaround time schools had to return them was not conducive to thoughtful decision-making for any leadership team. But especially for schools with budgets that do not adequately cover costs, having to rush decisions about which positions to cut is detrimental to student learning and to the morale of the entire school community. Of course, a greater effort should be made to get budgets to schools on time. But when they are late, school leaders have advised me that they need a minimum of two weeks to fully review them with their teams and make the best decisions for their school communities.
  1. That said, schools might not need as much time to turn their budgets around if the budgeting process were more stable and predictable. Starting from zero each year while relying on imperfect enrollment projection methods has led to an unhealthy level of instability for schools. The city school count day is in October, even as there is predictable student mobility, mostly from Charters to DCPS schools, throughout the school year. This handcuffs DCPS’s systemwide budget from the city, inadequately providing for our schools of right, but it need not be directly reflected in DCPS individual school budgets. We recommend using different enrollment projections can be used for different purposes and the internal enrollment projections used to fund our schools of right must be improved.

 

  1. While all types of schools are impacted by such budget instability, as Becky pointed out in her testimony about CHEC and several of our elementaries serving fewer than 500 students the CSM is most predictably harmful to our largest and smallest schools. In fact, we have learned that one of the few things that large schools like CHEC and small schools like Cleveland ES can count on when it comes to their annual budgets is that funding will not adequately cover their basic staffing costs. This predictable inadequacy in our budgeting process needs to be addressed.

We know DCPS is evaluating whether to move away from the CSM. Before we throw out this admittedly imperfect funding model, we should first try to fully fund our DCPS schools, which would include taking some of the following steps:

  • The UPSFF should be raised to keep pace with rising costs, in line with the city’s past adequacy study, which according to DC FPI would require an 8% increase.
  • At minimum, the CSM should be followed, with each school receiving the promised baseline, and it should be retooled to provide differentiated supports for our largest and smallest schools.
  • At-Risk funds should supplement funds for core school functions, not be used to supplant them.
  • Stabilization funds should be correctly allocated, and not gamed by adding new costs into individual school budgets.

I  would like to add that many Ward 1 schools offer Specialty programming – including but not limited to dual language, international baccalaureate, and International Academies – and should therefore receive additional funding.  Specialty programming requires program coordinator staff, trainings, and materials, all of which cost money which school leaders should not be forced to steal from funding core school functions.

Finally, as with most everything education-related, this is an equity issue. While a majority of Ward 1 schools have to haggle each year or “get creative” with their budgets, our sister schools in Wards 7 and 8 were hit hardest in the budgets for FY20. Schools east of the river are more likely to have declining enrollment and to be forced to absorb the most significant budget reductions — which directly impacts their ability to serve their remaining student population and to attract more students, thus leading them to enter a “death spiral.”

A system in which there are winners and losers is not, and never will be, an equitable system. When problems are predictable as all of these budget issues are, there is no excuse to continue on with business as usual. Additionally, while DCPS teachers’ salaries look very generous when viewed in a vacuum, when adjusted for DC’s cost of living, our salaries fall squarely in the middle of the pack nationally.  Those salaries should never be used as an excuse for inadequately funding the education of our children. It’s time to make the changes necessary to bring stability and equity to our funding process so that all our schools, from Ward 1 to Ward 8 are fully and fairly funded.

Thank you.

 

Laura Fuchs Testimony – DCPS SY2021 Budget Hearing

DC Public Schools Budget Testimony:

Laura Fuchs, Teacher, HD Woodson HS, Chair of the Washington Teacher’s Union’s Committee on Political Education, WTU Recording Secretary, Executive Board Member of Ward 7 Education Council, Executive Board Member of Empower DC and member of LSAT of HD Woodson HS, Ward 5 Resident

Delivered: Tuesday, October 29, 2019

My name is Laura Fuchs, and I am in my 13th year teaching at HD Woodson SHS. Today I would like to focus on highlighting the budget where it concerns serving the needs of our Special Education students. Because our schools are budgeted based on projected enrollment we know that the system will not be perfect. The students we serve in Ward 7 are highly mobile and are often going through a lot that can cause them to move from school to school. This year our school is already over 67 students beyond our overall projected enrollment, and our special education population appears to have a similar percentage over-enrolled. When it comes to special education the challenges deepen because we also do not know in advance what programs nor how many hours of services our students will need in order to fulfill their IEPs. This year HD Woodson has seen a noticeable uptick in the total number of hours required on the IEPs (i.e., we usually used to see 10 hours and now are seeing 15).

We accept that DCPS cannot predict with 100% accuracy who will walk through the doors in August each year. But DCPS needs to be better prepared and more flexible to guarantee that our schools will have the teachers, services, and personnel required to meet the IEPs of our students when they do arrive. To that end, I want to suggest that we end the practice of “Mutual Consent” that Michelle Rhee bargained for in 2009. If we allow excessed teachers, who have good evaluation scores, to stay in a “pool” of available teachers, they can then be placed at a school immediately when a need arises. Currently the system severs them from the system if they don’t find a job at the end of the summer, making them unavailable to hire at all! Then, if a school has more students than they predicted, or the students have more hours, or we need an additional staff member for a particular program, that need can be met as fast as possible so our students don’t get negatively affected. On top of that, if we run out of teachers from that pool we can then pull from existing central office staff, who should be required to keep up their teaching licensure, so that they are serving kids directly rather than doing who knows what in an over-bloated administrative black hole.

Next we need to bring back the Special Education Coordinator to the Comprehensive Staffing Model funding formula for any school that has over a certain percentage and/or number of special education students. I won’t claim to be the expert on what the threshold should fairly be, but the fact is that a school like HD Woodson, where close to 30% of the population on any given year is receiving special education services, a Special Education Coordinator is not optional staffing. We do not receive enough discretionary funds to afford it, and we lost our position in this past year. That is not acceptable.

Furthermore, DCPS needs to better indicate what funds are Special Education funds and can only be spent in that department both as incoming funds and then as how we spend them. It should be broken down clearly how those funds were calculated, what programs they are to be used for, etcetera, so that our teachers and coordinator can verify that they are correct. Having served in LSATs for the past 10 years, I can attest that it is often very confusing as to where the money is coming from and if we are correctly spending it, and that often appears to lead to our school not getting adequate general funds and then compensating for them with special education funds, like what was happening with At-Risk Funds. This is a potential massive lawsuit that could be avoided with increased transparency and training for our LSATs.

When it comes to calculating what funds our local schools should get they should be based on special education teachers automatically getting 2 planning periods per day – one for academic planning and one for case management. Caseloads should be based on the amount of hours and work it will take to service the IEP, not simply total number of students, it should be made clear how that is being calculated so that our school can use them appropriately. DCPS should work with our teams in advance to learn how difficult it can be to service all our students and then staff and fund the programs appropriately so that we are set up to be successful.

It is our moral duty to service our students with special education needs. We must set up our schools to be successful but adequately funding and staffing them. Anything less is unacceptable.

Nzinga Tull Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

Testimony before the DC Council Committee on Education

On B23-0199 (School Transparency)

By Nzinga Tull

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Good Afternoon Councilmembers,

My name is Nzinga Tull.  I am a native Washingtonian and a proud graduate of DCPS.  I was raised in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Ward 7 and have made my home as an adult in Ward 7’s Dupont Park.  I am doting and committed aunt to my niece and nephew who are 1st and 4th graders at Watkins. I am the play auntie to the children of a number of my closest friends. And, as a long-time Ward-7 resident, I am deeply invested in how the children in my neighborhood experience school. This investment was the driver for me to become active in the Ward 7 Education Council (W7EC), including serving as the Corresponding Secretary on the organization’s Executive Committee for the past 5 years.

I am grateful that the Council has continued to invest the time and attention to issues of transparency and accountability for public schools.  When I reflect on my experience as a DCPS student, one of the most powerful and meaningful aspects was the sense of school community.  I frequently overheard conversations between my parents or between my parents and my friends’ parents or between my teachers. And while different parents, teachers and administrators may have had different approaches to solving problems, two things were clear to me: (1) the grown-ups had a common goal doing what the best things for us kids and (2) the grown-ups believed that they could work with each other and within the system to figure out what those “best things” looked like. I don’t recall the terms “transparency” and “accountability” being used, but the spirit of transparency and accountability is what drove the sense of community that was so important: the belief that everyone was operating with the honorable intentions and that formal channels existed to investigate and create remedies if this belief was challenged.

Transparency is a crucial component of building and sustaining trust needed for healthy school communities. We simply cannot sustain improvement in the relationships between our children’s caretakers, our educators and our policy makers if we don’t normalize transparency and the insight and the oversight that come along with it.  We have to have policies in place that support a culture of community and mutual responsibility. The bills that we are addressing today have the power to move our school cultures in this direction by requiring charters to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings, requiring open government training for charters, and requesting more information be published by the Charter authority on large contracts.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify.

Allyson Criner Brown Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

TFC-Logo-Trans-Big

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.

Mary Levy Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE AND THE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL

 Joint Public Hearing on B23-0199, the “Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019” and B23-0281, the “Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019”

Mary Levy      October 2, 2019

As an education finance lawyer, a budget and policy analyst, and a long-ago DCPS parent, I have spent almost 40 years dealing with DCPS transparency issues and over 20 years considering charter school issues.  After studying both the Public School Transparency Act and the School Based Budgeting bill, which I understand will be marked up next week, I urge that the Council enact the first, or incorporate its substance in full into the latter.

Charter schools need open board meetings, teacher representation on their boards, and FOIA.

I support these measures for all the reasons that you will hear over and over today, but I will highlight only two:

  • In a system of choice, families need full information in order to make wise choices. The record of charter school closures – 43 in ten years for many sad reasons — indicates that important information has not been available. Full information needs to be built in or choice does not work well.
  • Any school closing disrupts student education and causes pain and anxiety to families. Charter school closings take place after damage is done. They should be rare, but are not.  Public Charter School Board activities, while necessary and important have proven insufficient to stop problems leading to closings.  Likewise the charter boards. Full information and more stakeholder participation in individual charter board oversight and decision-making will help obviate the need to close schools.

As to the School Based Budgeting bill, I have serious concerns as to whether, as introduced, it will produce the transparency that both the Council and the public want and need.  These are specified in my testimony here of June 26.  There are tremendous deficiencies in DCPS fiscal transparency, among others:

  • Two sets of books, with inconsistent formats, definitions and numbers for local school budgets.
  • The basis of specific local school allocations of general education teachers and special education personnel is unavailable.
  • The only budget data for central offices, that in the FY 2020 Approved Budget, is known to be completely obsolete due to reorganization.
  • There are no data explicating the $25 million FY 2019 budget deficit or its resolution.
  • No enforcement or accountability for disregard of existing budgetary mandates.

The Committee has worked on this bill over the summer but the public has no knowledge of whether and how it has changed going into mark-up, and there is no opportunity to comment on either charter or DCPS transparency.  What is the Committee going to vote on?

 

Tom Susman Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

Testimony of the D.C. Open Government Coalition

By Thomas M. Susman, President

Before the Joint Hearing of the Committee of the Whole and the

Committee on Education Of the Council of the District of Columbia On B23-0199

October 2, 2019

Screenshot 2019-10-02 16.16.17

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso and members of the committees. I am Thomas Susman, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition and a resident of Ward 4. I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the Coalition and to offer our comments and suggestions regarding charter school transparency as proposed by Councilmember Allen’s bill.

I want to stress up front that our Coalition has great respect for charter schools and supports their independence and autonomy when it comes to education functions. We applaud the dedication of charter school teachers, administrators, and board members. However, because public funds are the foundation for charter school education, parents, teachers, taxpayers, and the media should have the same rights of access to records from charter schools as they do from public schools in D.C.

In the June hearings on Councilmember Grosso’s bill and today, witnesses with diverse perspectives have provided compelling arguments and examples for greater transparency at the school and Local Education Agency (LEA) level, so I won’t take time here to repeat the reasons for applying the DC Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA) to public charter schools.

My testimony today will not focus on why FOIA should apply to charter schools. Instead, I will try to respond to arguments of those who oppose that objective and – perhaps more important – suggest amendments to the legislation to accommodate some of their legitimate concerns. Let me run through those arguments and my responses and suggestions:

FOIA Places Too Heavy a Burden on Staff and Diverts Resources

I’ll start with a not-so-surprising admission: Yes, FOIA could add some work to the staff in finding and reviewing documents responsive to FOIA requests. Complying with any law almost inevitably comes with some cost. But the work load is not likely to be great, and the system can be structured to minimize the burden on individual schools. More to the point: that burden is more than offset by the benefits transparency provides.

  • As to the size of the burden, experience of charter schools in other jurisdictions and of D.C. public schools suggests there will be no tidal wave of requests that will drown charters. Additionally, the bill would track the volume of FOIA requests to facilitate adjustments should predictions prove wrong.
  • We all know that due process in our court system, accessibility for the disabled, assurance of equal opportunity in employment and housing, and similar protections and rights all carry costs, and sometimes not insignificant ones. But they are broadly accepted because they support values fundamental to our society.
  • It is notable that every state and D.C., plus over 120 countries around the world, have enforceable access-to-information laws. This again suggests that, even recognizing the costs entailed, the benefits to the public and to society are worth it.
  • The testimony by lawyers in big firms who draw on their experience in hard-fought, complex federal FOIA litigation is inapposite. D.C. has an efficient and fair administrative appeals process that has resulted in very little litigation, and the courts are well-equipped to manage disputes over large volumes of records such that agency work is not disrupted.

So we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say “no” simply because FOIA entails some additional work. We have two suggestions: First, to minimize the burdens and diversion of resources at the school level, DCOGC proposes that the legislation require that FOIA requests go initially to the Public Charter School Board. The Board and its staff will be responsible for working with the schools and LEAs for search and review procedures that ensure responsive information for requesters. This will relieve the schools of substantial administrative burdens. And the final decision, which may involve questions of law, will be made by a public body already subject to the DC FOIA, with appeals and enforcement already provided in the law.

Second, we recommend that just as resources are provided to public schools and the public school system to handle FOIA requests, and just as resources are provided to all schools in D.C. to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and similar laws, so also should some additional resources be available for charter schools to handle any new burdens imposed by FOIA. This need not be included in the legislation; only experience will tell what the additional resource needs, if any, will be.

Charter School Administrators Are Not Equipped to Implement the FOIA

As I noted above, we recommend that public charter schools provide the same level of transparency as D.C. public schools. Our proposed amendments would establish a procedure for accomplishing this goal that closely parallels procedures employed by DCPS for decades. In the public school system, a requester seeking information from or about a particular school makes the request to DCPS, which enlists personnel at the school to locate responsive records. Once the records are located, DCPS officials review the records and make disclosure decisions. We recognize that the PCSB, charter schools, and LEAs are not part of the same governmental entity, as are DCPS and public schools. But this system works in other jurisdictions where government contractors and nongovernmental entities carrying out governmental functions with public funds are subject to freedom-of-information laws, and it can work here as well.

We thus propose that the PCSB handle FOIA requests for charter school and LEA information. It would receive FOIA requests and ask the schools to provide responsive records. the Board’s expertise and experience will be brought to bear on handling of requests.

We also recommend that this legislation authorize the Office of Open Government to assist charter schools, LEAs, and the PCSB by providing training and advice on best practices for handling FOIA requests.

Confidential Commercial and Financial Information, as Well as Student Privacy. Must be Safeguarded

Confidential commercial and financial information is already specifically protected by the FOIA and would continue to be in the charter realm. The exemptions in DC’s FOIA, based on similar provisions in the federal statute, protect both the decision-making process of the institutions and the confidentiality interests of those doing business with them.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal statute protecting the privacy of student education records, applies to all schools receiving funds under any U.S. Department of Education program. That statute applies equally to D.C. charter and public schools to prevent student records from being disclosed under the DC FOIA.

There Are Concerns About Disclosure of Teachers’ and Staffs’ Salaries.

The Coalition recognizes that salary information is always a sensitive topic. But across the country governments at all levels make public the salaries of employees paid by taxpayer dollars. Salary information for public school employees is public, and there’s good reason to treat charters similarly. The obvious benefits – beyond simply knowing how our public funds are spent – include promoting equity and combatting favoritism and discrimination.

Even so, it would be quite easy to accommodate the interest of charter school administrators in addressing possible disparities or inequities before public disclosure: a specific provision could be added to the legislation delaying for an additional period of time application of the FOIA to salaries, so that the individual schools can have time to make any adjustments deemed appropriate.

Conclusion

In the end, applying the FOIA and OMA to this sector enhances charter school transparency and benefits these important schools as well. Transparency laws bring greater accountability to the institutions to which they apply, generating higher levels of public trust and enhanced public understanding of how tax dollars are used. By increasing public scrutiny, these laws reduce corruption, mismanagement, and waste. We support the legislation and the expectation it embodies that transparency will benefit students, teachers, administrators, regulators, and ultimately taxpayers.

I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. I urge you to apply the OMA and FOIA to public charter schools, and to adopt our proposals for amending the pending legislation. They will facilitate more efficient handling of FOIA requests, ease the potential burden on school administrators, and take advantage of the assistance that the Office of Open Government can offer. DCOGC will be pleased to work with you to develop specific language to achieve these objectives.

Liz Koenig Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

Good afternoon, thank you for the opportunity to testify about the Public School Transparency Amendment Act.  My name is Liz Koenig and I am a Ward 4 DCPS public school teacher and parent and former charter school teacher. I am also a volunteer for EmpowerEd, a teacher advocacy organization.

I want to talk about an aspect of this bill that is important but has gone largely unremarked on amidst the FOIA debate, and that is the requirement to put teachers on the board of each charter school. I am strongly in favor of this and urge you to support this provision.  Family engagement is a priority at most schools these days but it focuses only on those academic, classroom-based interactions between families and teachers. Having teachers and parents included as school leaders on each school’s board could create powerful community around the school’s priorities and mission.

It makes sense to have teachers in the room when discussions around budgets, mission, enrollment, and priorities are discussed.  After I received my previous school’s board meeting minutes (vía a FOIA request to the PCSB since our minutes were not publicly posted), I noticed that our school’s poor teacher retention rates were discussed multiple times over five years.  Why have conversations about teachers, their livelihoods, and their experiences without teachers in the room?  Why plan school-wide initiatives without the input of the people who will implement them?  Why discuss the future of the school without involving the school?  The turnover rate for teachers in DC is abysmal and at some schools, can be called a crisis.  It’s time to trust teachers to be community leaders – our students need us advocating for them in and out of the classroom.

As to the other aspects of this bill, hundreds of teachers and parents have signed a petition asking for Open Meetings and access to FOIA, our Ward Education Councils have discussed and debated the merits, and articles and op-eds have been written about DC’s unique status as the most opaque charter system in the country.  Most in this room are familiar with the arguments for and against the bill.

Arguments against opening DC’s charter schools to these sunshine laws have focused on (1) the hypothetical burden of compliance and (2) the motivation of the people, like me, behind the push for transparency.  Most of the people making these arguments are either paid by the charter sector to make them or are employed in the charter sector.  Because the charter sector and each school depends on “market size” for their survival, and needs to have as many “satisfied customers” as possible to meet enrollment targets and make annual budgets, it causes an unpleasant feeling to wonder why the people at the top work so hard to prevent access to information.  It feels more like brand-management than working to provide a public education in a democratic society.

Arguments for greater transparency and this bill focus on (1) the democratic principle that the spending of public money obligates you to submit to public scrutiny; (2) the opportunity for increased trust and engagement between the thousands of families and the public schools they’ve chosen to send their children to; and (3) the importance of providing an avenue for families to have access to information when something goes horribly wrong.  The vast majority of people making these arguments are volunteering their limited time, speaking out despite the risk of getting fired, or fighting, as DC parents always seem to have to do, for their educational system to take their concerns seriously.

The conversation that we should be having right now, but aren’t, is about the logistics of applying FOIA and Open Meetings to charter schools: would it make sense to have the PCSB act as a clearinghouse and insert a clause in each charter that requires charters to supply documents to them in the event of a FOIA request? Could big charter networks who are used to, and quite capable of, responding to FOIA requests in every other state support smaller charters in getting up to speed on best practices? How do we calculate how much extra funding would be needed year-to-year to accommodate this?  But instead of these productive conversations, we have the people with the most power – both the money and information – refusing to dialogue in good faith with those with less power but more at stake.

In the past, this strategy has been successful, and these loopholes in our open government laws have never been closed.  After two years of working on this issue, building a network of teachers and parents united in their belief in democratic principles, I am confident that the change is coming soon.  I urge you to pass this bill or amend the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Act to include its mandate of FOIA, teachers and students on charter school boards, and transparency in charter teacher pay.

Thank you.