Sunshine is a great disinfectant. Peering behind the curtain of public institutions allows us to oversee them and hold them accountable. That’s why I along with many others, were surprised to see Governor Brown veto AB 709, a bill to increase charter transparency. After some research, though, I understand this veto, and I also see a way forward that everyone should agree to.
A look at the Bill
Assembly Bill 709 would have required that charter schools comply with the same state laws governing open meetings, open records and conflict of interest laws that traditional public schools do.
Sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, D-Carson, the bill would have required all charter schools to disclose how they spend taxpayer money, including budgets and contracts. It also prohibits charters’ board members and their families from profiting from their schools.
More technically, it would explicitly apply the Brown Act Open Meeting Law, the Public Records Act, the Political Reform Act, governing conflicts of interest and Government Code 1090, which applies criminal penalties for conflicts of interest
I sit on a charter board in California, and have sat on over a dozen, and I agree with each of these goals; open meetings, open records, disclosures and prohibitions of conflicts of interest, but when I dug a little deeper there is a poison pill in the bill, that could critically undermine charter operations.
And indeed, this very same bill was vetoed in the prior session. Which seems to say its more about scoring political points than actually passing legislation.
There is a common sense compromise that would meaningfully move transparency and accountability forward. So, I would hope that our representatives can settle for three quarters of a loaf, rather than throwing the bread out with the bathwater.
The Accountability we need
Charter schools are public schools by law, they take in millions in taxpayer funding and perform one of the most vital public functions, education. So they need to be transparent, accountable, and avoid conflicts of interest. But charters are often mom and pop, community grown enterprises, starting with almost no money and really relying on board members and staff to get the school up and running.
So what is the right level of accountability and transparency?
Open Meetings and Open Records– Charter board meetings and committee meetings should be open under the Brown Act, allowing the public to observe and comment, and providing access to basically all the documents produced. Budgets, policies, reports, anything produced by the school that doesn’t have some legitimate confidentiality issue should be public under the Public records Act. And certainly anything around the use of public funds or produced by them has to be public.
The public has a right to see how its money is spent, how its schools make decisions, and ultimately how they are doing. This seems like common sense, and if boards aren’t willing to accept this scrutiny they should just start a private school.
Disclosing and Avoiding Conflicts of Interest– The public trust requires that money is spent for children and that shysters don’t use schools as a vehicle for personal enrichment, through fraud or self-dealing. Charter boards should make annual disclosures (which mine does), and conflicts of interest should be prohibited.
The political Reform Act does that, but Government code 1090 goes too far, potentially applying criminal penalties for actions where a trustee may have an “interest.” Where historically the standard has been whether the transaction is fair, and at arms length, where conflicted directors don’t vote, and don’t profit.
Why does this distinction matter?
Most independent charters start small and depend on the kindness of board members or founders. I have seen folks mortgage their house to give the school a donation or no interest loan to get it off the ground. And in many cases trustees or founders donate the startup money or take initial obligations on under their own name while the school is starting up. Government Code 1090 would criminalize those who helped with financial transactions in startup or those who make contributions to the school for a specific project because they have an “interest” even if there is no personal gain.
Again, even a no-interest loan could be criminalized.
This goes too far. Yes, all these transactions should be publicly reported. Yes, conflicts where self-dealing occurs should be penalized and probably criminally penalized. But to prohibit any “interest” goes too far and misses the nature of independent charter school startup.
As trustees and founders of schools trying to help underserved students and families, we are intently “interested,” often throwing our own money into the pot when its empty—and that is the vast majority of these “interested” transactions, not the shysters who make the newspapers.
Getting to Yes
99% of charter folks will agree to the Open Meeting Law, Public Records Act, and Political Reform Act. This will guarantee to the public the right to observe and comment on board deliberations, review and analyze school documents, budgets, and policies, as well as requiring disclosure of any conflicts or potential conflicts of interest.
Transparency is essential for public schools, and charters should adopt these rules themselves even if the State doesn’t require it. But from the State level, I hope we will see an amended bill that includes the three areas mentioned, and I hope that the charter schools will support it and the governor will sign it.
Too often these fight are just politics, politicians proposing bills to make political points, with no possibility of passing. Charter school transparency is too important to ignore, or only symbolically address. The public is rightly hungry for transparency, so I hope our representatives can deliver three quarters of a loaf in the next session rather than one more stale retread of a failed political fight that will never make it to the table