Sandra Moscoso Testimony
Public Hearing on B23-0199, the “Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019” & B23-0281, the “Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019.”
Committee on Education – October 2, 2019 at 10:00AM, JAWB 412
Chairmen Grosso, Mendelson and Councilmembers, I’m Sandra Moscoso, a Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan parent, the School Without Walls High School Home and School Association President, and Secretary of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.
I am here to support the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. All schools funded by taxpayer dollars should be subject to the Open Meetings Act. I am glad we all agree on this, including the DC Public Charter School Board.
I also strongly support that charter schools including all local education agencies be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As EmpowerEd has shared with us, the case has been made in 39 out of 43 states with charter schools, and even the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools endorses this.
As a long-time member of the Ward 6 education community, I can share that we have relied on OMA to strengthen our schools by staying on top of decisions made by education boards and LSATs, and we’ve relied on FOIA when we’ve feared our kids safety, health and education opportunities have been compromised.
I find it hard to understand how anyone can justify putting students at risk because of fears that doing the right thing may be too much work. Yes, doing the right thing typically takes work, but we live in a society that relies on systems of individuals doing the right thing.
For example, we have seatbelt laws. Putting on a seatbelt is an extra step, but I think we can all agree it’s worthwhile to keep ourselves and our families safe. I do this, I assume you all do this. I had been lucky and had not been in a traffic accident for over 20 years. One could say that for 20 years that seatbelt has not been doing much of anything. Last October, while driving my two children to after school activities I was t-boned by a motorist who ran a red light. My car was totaled, but we were all OK. That seatbelt was a safeguard that was activated when things went wrong.
This is the role of FOIA in schools – it is the safeguard families, educators, media, policymakers all of us, have to ensure our students are safe, healthy, and that resources are being used for purposes intended. Like seatbelts, FOIA is a tool that protects us when things go wrong.
The Council has oversight responsibility in ensuring children and adults enrolled in public schools receive the education we pay for. The public elected you to provide this oversight but we know you can’t do it alone. Help us help you. Ensuring every student is protected by FOIA.
Thank you for your time.
Testimony of Rebecca Reina
Chair of the Ward 1 Education Council
to Council of the District of Columbia,
Committee on Education,
B23-0199, the “Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019” and
B23-0281, the “Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019”
on 10/2/19 at 10:00 pm, John A. Wilson building, room 412
Hello, I‘m 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 provide feedback on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. I am here on behalf of W1EC to support the Act’s passage. We believe it is necessary to keep our children safe, minimize the possibility of financial mismanagement of public dollars, and create an environment of openness and collaboration within our schools, among many other things.
When we rebooted the Ward 1 Education Council at the start of this year, Cesar Chavez Prep PCS, was one of our Ward 1 schools. I was glad to know some of the teachers there who were involved with organizing the first charter school teacher’s union in DC. So when those same teachers discovered a few months later that the school at which they taught would close at the end of the 2018-9 school year, by receiving a phone call from a Washington Post reporter who informed them in order to allow them to comment, I was deeply saddened. Schools are communities. Educators, parents, and students create bonds to best support students. A vital ingredient of those bonds is trust. You cannot have trust between two parties if one party is withholding relevant information.
Asking our charter schools to do something new – to be a bit more transparent and accountable – can sound scary and seem too difficult, but these are muscles that we can strengthen with practice. This bill requires the Board of Trustees of a charter school comply with the Freedom of Information Act of 1976 as well as the Open Meetings Act. But, it also requires the Office of Open Government to provide training to affected members of charter schools.
The Act would also require that more information be published on contracts over $25,000. These requirements apply to all public agencies. It should apply to our charter schools. Charter schools accept public tax dollars to fund the education of nearly half of the public school students in DC. When a charter school spends money on outside contracts, we as taxpayers, parents, and educators should know. Chavez Prep was spending a great deal of money on that type of contract, which may have contributed to the financial difficulties the school’s leaders cited for closing the campus.
When a school closes, a community is lost. When a school closes abruptly, families struggle to find stability for their students. Students and teachers scatter. I was not surprised when I reached out to the former Chavez Prep teachers I know to learn that their students are all over; many at our vitally important DCPS by-right schools, precisely because many charters do not backfill in middle school and the closure announcement occurred a week before the My School DC lottery deadline for high school. Of the 25 Chavez teachers these teachers could account for, only one landed at another charter. The rest are teaching in DCPS. To quote one, “the greater level of transparency at DCPS around salaries, operations, etc. was a big draw for me.” Salary transparency can prevent bias by race and gender, which is particularly needed in a city blessed with so many teachers of color. Transparency on operations can allow our educators to feel like valued team members who can work with their school administrators to meet the needs of our students.
The Public School Transparency Amendment Act can help us hold all our Local Education Agencies to the same standard of accountability and transparency. Our kids deserve that, regardless of the LEA they attend. Our children and our democracy require safeguards.
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.
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 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.
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 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:
–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.
 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.:
 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.
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.
TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE AND THE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL
Joint Public Hearing on B23-0046, the “At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019” and B23-0239, the “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019”
Laura Fuchs, Chair of the Washington Teachers Union Committee on Political Education
July 26, 2019
We have said it before and clearly we will have to say it again: Budgets are moral documents and are the foundation upon which our education programming is built. It is simply not possible to achieve our ambitious and important equity goals without equitable funding. And as we have seen time and time again, equity cannot be achieved if left up solely to a Mayor and their central office team – it must be inclusive of the stakeholders and those who are actually implementing the policy – and we cannot operate in the dark.
For the past 10 years I have sat and sometimes chaired the Local School Advisory Team at HD Woodson HS. Thanks to the guidance of experts like Mary Levy and DC Fiscal Policy Institute analysts, I have pored over budget documents and attempted to figure out if HD Woodson was getting the money it was owed by law. DC Public Schools has consistently made that almost impossible, taking up hours and hours of time just trying to get the right number that we are owed by law that would be better spent strategizing what to do with the proper amount of money. This has allowed our students to be consistently shortchanged in At-Risk, Special Education, English Language Learner and General Education dollars (as has been proven for At-Risk funds by the DC Auditor) and forces our school to rely on inconsistent sources of staffing that remove most of our local school’s decision-making power.
This year HD Woodson had to cut 8 positions. We have now had funding for ~2 restored thanks to efforts made by the Council. But we still don’t fully know if we should have received those cuts in the first place or if we were short-changed on our general education funds. While DCPS Central office continues to expand their spending, our school has made consistent cuts to services we can provide our services that are far bigger than is warranted by our student population.
The “At-Risk School Funding Transparency” legislation has the right idea – we need to make sure the decision-making power, by law, is vested in the local school and that DCPS supports and amends the decisions made there in a clear and transparent manner. Providing a separate narrative and publishing that information will hopefully go a long way in sharing best practices and allowing all schools to do what is best for their student populations. We should expand the legislation to include Special Education and English Language Learner supplements as well since there are legal obligations that this money also supplement and not supplant schools’ comprehensive staffing.
The “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment” legislation does not address the major issues that we experience at the local school level, nor does it address the even larger issues faced by teachers in the Public Charter sector who have even less access to information and advisory power than those of us serving in DCPS. I urge the council to seriously amend the legislation before considering its passage.
The way that the legislation asks DCPS to categorize their spending by grade levels served will just give DCPS Central Office the door to further obfuscate what they are doing and its impacts. When you have over 800 people in a centralized location they have a lot of time to justify their existence while teachers actually working with students lose their jobs. There will be no additional information of use – especially if past documentation efforts by DCPS are any indication of how seriously they take these reporting requirements.
We need a clear definition of what makes a Central Office employee and then we need to hold DCPS to the law of only spending 5% or less on those activities. We are at least three times above the legal limit right now. We need more information on external contracts. I went through the spreadsheet submitted to the Council and it took hours of time to organize the information into useful pieces and I found many contracts that ostensibly did the same thing but were purchased from different offices from different companies. Either they were actually doing the same thing, or the reporting requirements are so general that we don’t actually know what was being paid for. On top of this there was zero justification as to whether these contracts – many that have gone on for years – have actually achieved the “results” that we are paying for.
I want to caution against assuming a buzzword like “student based budgeting” will automatically fix our budgeting problems. Many systems, like Chicago, are trying to move to our model because it actually provides more stability and makes school budgets less dependent on enrollment numbers and instead focuses on what the base-line level of what every school should have no matter what. The problem we have in DC Public Schools is that DCPS is not following its own policies. Changing the policy without some mechanism to actually make DCPS follow it will not change the problem. Enforcing the Comprehensive Staffing Model and actually following it would mean every school, even the small ones with fluctuating enrollments, would have everything they need to provide a robust education for their students. What we need to add is a more inclusive process for creating that baseline, mechanisms to clearly ensure that schools are getting what they are owed in that model, and then making sure that additional funds for specialized programming, Special Education, English Language Learners and At Risk students are added on top of that model.
DCPS Needs to follow the DC Auditors recommendations and keep one set of books that is open and completely transparent. What a principal sees at their school level should be the same thing an LSAT chair sees and should be the same thing the Council sees. We waste endless amounts of time with multiple books where nobody knows what is true and what isn’t – even the people who are tasked and paid very well for creating them.
Ultimately though none of this will matter if DCPS is allowed to flout the law with zero consequences. The Council needs to use its budgetary authority to force DCPS to follow the laws that are being written by this body. My suggestion – hold the pay of all Central Office employees until the requirements are verifiably met. We have allowed countless students to be underserved, educators who work directly with students to lose their livelihoods and an expanding “achievement” and resource gap under the watch of mayoral control. Enough is enough. This body took on the role of the school board when they empowered the Mayor and removed all authority from the school board. This is on you as much as it is on the Mayor.
Lastly, we need to talk about Charter Schools. DC Charter Schools are some of the least transparent in the nation. Everything I am talking about with DCPS – we don’t even know how much worse it is at some of our LEAs in this city because they don’t have to report what they are doing with their funds. When we do get glimpses they are extremely troubling. The current Transparency legislation does not do enough to allow multiple stakeholders – especially teachers – serving on the board. It is not enough to subject Boards to the open meetings act, we must also allow the public to FOIA the schools if they are not being forthcoming.
We need to have a common language on costs and we need to report it across all of our LEAs. This is something I worked with the SBOE’s ESSA Task Force and I urge you to assist OSSE in making this a reality.