An anti-transparency editorial in The Washington Post

April 16, 2019

Last month, Charles Allen, a member of the Washington, DC Council, introduced the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, which would extend the same sunshine laws applied to traditional public schools to publicly funded charter schools. The proposal came on the heels of suggested reforms put forth by the DC Public Charter School Board. In addition to promoting access to records and meetings, it would also force charter schools to include a list of donations greater than $500 in their annual reports and to include at least two teachers on their boards. (At high schools or adult learning centers, a student representative would also have to be included.) This week, the editorial board of The Washington Post argued against the measure.

We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation—which seems to be taken from the national teachers’ union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools—is not designed to benefit the public or help students,” the editorial board wrote. The piece goes on to tout the charter school board’s reputation for scrupulous oversight, arguing that it already upholds a requirement that charters “disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources.” Enacting the amendment, the editorial argues, would threaten the schools’ independence with unnecessary bureaucracy.

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In endorsing the obscurity of charter school finances, the editorial board struggles to see how the release of information—such as the names of charter school employees, salaries, and vendor contracts under $100,000, data that DC public schools must make available—is “critical to student learning.” The editorial board adds that it’s “easy to see how it might help unions in their bid to organize at charter schools.”

The city’s 123 charter schools, attended by nearly 45,000 students, benefit from $800 million in taxpayer funds every year. The quasi-public board that oversees them is subject to open meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act, but journalists and the public are only granted access to charter school documents in the board’s possession. The board acts as a curator, allowing public access only to information that it deems necessary. This poses obvious problems for parents, who seek information about how their kids’ schools are run, and for journalists, tasked with covering schools that make up a massive chunk of the public education landscape in the nation’s capital. By contrast, California passed a law last month that would subject its 1,300 charter schools to public records and open meetings laws.

Last month, Rachel Cohen, who covers education for the Washington City Paper and DCist, reported that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, both pro-charter school advocacy groups, support the application of transparency laws to charter schools. Washington, DC, is an outlier: Todd Ziebarth, of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told the Post in February that in most jurisdictions, members of the public can attend charter school board meetings and make records requests at individual schools.

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“We’re told that it would be ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’ and a ‘distraction from student learning’ and ‘an infringement on autonomy,’ among other weak rationales,” Cohen tells CJR of the transparency law. But “advocates against FOIA have never once pointed to actual evidence to show that would be the case.”

Some of the biggest investigations into charter schools, Cohen adds, began with journalists getting ahold of emails and other documents sent between school leaders and charter school board members. Those kinds of stories are simply not possible right now in Washington, DC.

The Post editorial board believes that the proposed bill would unduly burden charter schools. And indeed, processing FOIA requests does require staff; other public agencies have complained about how cumbersome it can be. But Cohen points out that, in the past, the FOIA load on the charter schools’ board has been light: between October 1, 2017 and September 30, 2018, 74 requests were made, and most were processed within 15 days at a total cost of $22,600. The proposed law includes a provision for tracking the load of requests and says that the board would have to help schools meet it.

When CJR reached out to Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, asking how his team reached their conclusion, he wrote back, “We read the law carefully; we reported on the process that led to its introduction, including consultations that did or did not take place; got the views of several council members and city officials; and our judgment was that the costs to charter effectiveness outweigh any potential gain.” He added, “I have yet to hear, for example, a convincing argument of why what would likely be individually identifiable salary information at a charter school would be essential information for parents, potential parents or, for that matter, reporters. Charter schools should be judged first and foremost on the results they deliver.

Washington, DC, is a city lauded for its high public school teacher salaries; the DC charter school board requests that its members include salary data in their annual reports—some do, but it is not a requirement. As a result, DC families have an incomplete picture of teacher compensation across their city. After a year of stunning displays of teachers strikes across the country, meant to address myriad problems—including teacher pay—this information is of obvious news value and reporters routinely cover it.

For a journalistic entity—opinion section or otherwise—to advocate against a measure that seeks to increase transparency is backwards. The editorial board’s stance echoes the arguments of charter school operators, instead of supporting a measure that would improve access to information about taxpayer-funded entities. While journalists across the country work overtime to uphold the values of disclosure, this editorial—from one of the country’s preeminent newspapers, whose tagline is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—isn’t just embarrassing, it’s undermining.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.