Liz Koening Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

Liz Koenig 

Public Testimony on B23-0046 and B23-0239

June 26, 2019

Good morning, my name is Liz Koenig, and I am a part of EmpowerEd’s teacher council.  I worked as a charter school teacher for seven years and sent my daughter to a charter school for the last two.  The School-Based Budgeting and Transparency Bill takes several important steps to increase trust in our public institutions, such as requiring charter schools to detail expenditures as well as budgets and requiring all schools to detail how they spend their at-risk funds.  Budget transparency is a worthy goal, and incredibly important against this city’s backdrop of underinvesting in the most marginalized communities.

The transparency aspect I wanted to focus on today is one that has been most important to me as a charter teacher and parent.  I enthusiastically support making charter school board meetings open to families, staff, and the public. This is an important step in connecting charter schools to the communities they serve in a way that is currently lacking.  While charter schools are granted great independence in how they run their schools, they should not be released from the obligations public schools have to their communities.

Beyond having open board meetings, I believe that teachers – who are closest to the students and who deliver the instruction every day – should be guaranteed representation on each charter school’s board.  Teacher voice is essential to strong, quality schools and, while it is prioritized and respected in many schools, it should be guaranteed in all.

Requiring charter schools to have open board meetings is an essential first step, but I believe it does not go far enough.  Charter schools should also be subject to DC’s Freedom of Information Act, giving the public the right to request documents relating to how these schools are spending public dollars.  Adding this piece of transparency to the Budgeting and Transparency Act would be complementary – charter schools have to report expenditures and citizens are given a tool to verify the details of these submissions.  The mechanics of how FOIA would work for charter schools still need to be, and can easily be, fleshed out with collaboration and creativity.

The reason all these measures are necessary is because accountability means more than test scores or a PMF rating.  Accountability means school leaders should be face-to-face with families and teachers when making decisions that will affect students’ education, most critically when those decisions are unpopular ones.  Accountability means school leaders should not be able to avoid answering for mistakes made – not when students and teachers have to live with the fallout. Accountability means that the public should be able to follow tax dollars from collection to payment, in greater detail than the broad strokes of an annual report or a 990.  

Accountability means that when the stakes are this high, you should not be able to hide behind the empty platitude, “trust us.”  Schools in both sectors are still falling short of the high standards we expect them to have in educating our city’s children. Transparency is an issue across sectors in DC.  There are committed advocates who work to hold DCPS accountable to their students every day, and I fully support their efforts. Those who wish to put the same democratic pressure on the charter system have fewer tools.  

While the PCSB is there to hold schools academically accountable, families and teachers care about more than just “outcomes,” a term which often just refers to two-dimensional test scores and graduation rates.  They care about the inputs and the processes of a school – How are students treated? How are teachers valued? What kind of social emotional and discipline practices are used? What is the school doing to protect its children from health and safety hazards, including predators?  Whose input is being solicited and listened to? As Councilmember Robert White has said, “Not everyone who has an interest in our schools has an interest in our students.” We need to empower those who have genuine interests in students’ safety and success.

Recent events have made this year feel like a watershed moment in this city for the future of our educational system.  There have been too many failures, too many hollow mandates, too many repetitions of our same inequitable history – in both charters and traditional public schools.  Asking for more transparency is absolutely not a condemnation of one type of education or another. Asking for transparency is asking for respect from our school leaders and city officials.

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