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.

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