Suzanne Wells Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

Committee on Whole and Education

Public Hearing

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.

 

 

Valerie Jablow Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

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[1] 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.[2]

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[3] 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[4]:

–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.

[1] https://twitter.com/dcteachersunite/status/1177187545228226566

[2] 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.:

Parent Engagement in Schools: Part 3

[3] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/21085439/how-charter-schools-won-dc-politics

[4] 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.

 

Danica Petroshius Testimony – Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 – October 2, 2019

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.

Thank you.

 

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

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.

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

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”

Mary Levy      July 26, 2019

As an education finance lawyer, a budget and policy analyst, and a long-ago DCPS parent, I have spent almost 40 years dealing with DCPS budget transparency, including annual analyses of system-wide and local school budgets.  After study of the two bills that are the subject of today’s hearing, I urge that the Council (1) pass the At-Risk School Funding Transparency legislation and (2) rework the School Based Budgeting and Transparency, which as written has multiple practical problems.

The At-Risk Funding bill is particularly good in requiring a narrative description of the use of at-risk funds and in going back to the original at-risk legislation’s directive that DCPS plans be formulated by the principal and LSAT at each school, subject to review and justified change by the Chancellor.

As to the School Based Budgeting bill, essentially we lack sufficient understanding of what the questions are that transparency is to answer and how its mandates are to be enforced.  It needs to be considered in tandem with Bill 23-199, which covers the same ground and more with important additional transparency provisions and application of FOIA to charter schools.  Specifics:

First, the School Based Budgeting bill includes some useful proposals:

  • The sec. 3(c) change in DCPS pupil count to account for enrollment increase in the course of the school year;
  • The sec. 4 requirement that meetings of public charter school boards of trustees be open;
  • The sec. 2 general idea that some DC government agency should create a chart of accounts with standard definitions enabling full disclosure of “administrative” (unfortunately undefined) costs, and comparability across schools and sectors. However, this major task with major implications and potential for unintended consequences needs much further development.

Second, no matter what the questions are, there will be no meaningful transparency unless:

  • The Council stops the practice of DCPS keeping two inconsistent, non-comparable, and confusing sets of books for local school budgets, i.e., those given to schools and posted on the DCPS website versus those in the city’s financial system, including the Mayor’s budget submission. The mess this makes was exemplified in the budget oversight hearing where DCPS witnesses and Council members were operating out of altogether different numbers.
  • The Council ceases to accept the DCPS definition of “central administration” as limited to the highest management levels plus business services, while allowing DCPS to treat the remaining central accounts as a mash of services directly benefiting students (e.g., special ed therapists, athletic trainers, security guards, utilities) and of costs of offices where hundreds of employees tell teachers and principals how to do their jobs. These are very different functions.

 

Third, the amendments to DC Code § 38–2907.01[1] obviously intend to make central office costs and local school budgets transparent, but the attempt is not successful:

  • “Central administration,” as currently defined leaves most central office costs unaccounted for, and not separated from costs directly benefitting students.
  • Attributing “central administration” expenditures to each of the many categories of the UPSFF is a waste of effort. It can be done automatically but since these functions almost all apply equally to each student, it will produce no useful information.  Separating central office expenditures that directly benefit students and then identifying how much goes to each school would be useful and important, but that is not what the bill proposes.
  • Local school budgets in both different sets of books, have considerable, though different detail in many regards, but mysteries exist: (1) general ed teacher allocation is a black box; (2) special education personnel allocation is a black box; (3) many schools receive local funding outside the Comprehensive Staffing Model, but there is no explanation of why some receive money for these programs and some do not.

 

Finally, there seems little point to enacting any of this legislation unless the Council provides for enforcement.  The DC Code already includes numerous mandates intended to provide budget transparency for DCPS that both DCPS and the Mayor ignore, without consequence or accountability.  A list follows:

  • 38–2903(b), the algorithm determining the UPSFF foundation level, including variables for personnel costs. The Mayor’s report does not include the variables.  There is no indication of why the amount proposed is what it is.
  • 38–2907.01(a)(2), limiting DCPS annual local school budget decreases to 5%.
  • 38–2907.01(b)(3), requiring DCPS at-risk funds to supplement, not supplant all other funds to which a school is entitled.
  • 38–2831(a), requiring the DCPS budget submission to include FTEs with job titles by program and revenue source.
  • 38–2831(b)(3)(A), requiring the DCPS budget submission to identify funds not allocated directly to a school or central administration that support costs provided at the school level or directly to students.
  • 38–2831(c), requiring the Chancellor to make available on the DCPS website a detailed estimate of funds required to operate DCPS for the ensuring year no later than 21 days before the Mayor’s budget submission.
  • 38–2831(d), requiring that the Mayor’s budget submission include the compilations of Schedule A positions and DCPS employees as of the preceding March 31.

[1] Sec. 3, the second subsection (b) as posted in LIMS, following subsection (c).

Iris Bond Gill Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

Testimony of Iris Bond Gill

Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole and Committee on Education Thursday, June 26, 2019

Contact: iris007gill@gmail.com 

Good Afternoon Councilmembers. My name is Iris Bond Gill and I’m here to testify about the School Based Budgeting Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and the At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019.

As a parent who’s been actively engaged on my school’s LSAT, I can see the merits of both bills. They aim to provide a more detailed understanding than we have currently of how at-risk funds are being used. However, the At-Risk funding bill does not go far enough. The Office of the DC Auditor just released a report finding that, far too often, the funds for at-risk students were used to meet other school needs. The DC Council should require that at-risk funds be supplemental as they were intended to be and and never used to supplant other district and federal funds AND that the reporting on how at-risk funds are budgeted and spent be clear and consistent across all schools.

And I’ll add that there is currently a line that if charter LEAs do not properly comply with reporting, the Public Charter School Board can withhold future at-risk funding. The authority to withhold funds should sit with the state education agency (osse) or with this Council, not with PCSB.

I support the requirement in the School-based Budgeting Transparency Act that all publicly funded schools comply with the Open Meetings Act. One area where the bill falls short is in uniform compliance with the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA. Right now only DCPS can be FOIAd. However, charter compliance with FOIA is already in place in 39 other states, including those with some of the largest charter sectors. If you talk to charter school teachers, parents, and the general public, there’s broad agreement that this transparency measure is needed. FOIA is an important backstop when there isn’t enough transparency, when communication has failed, and when the health and safety of students is jeopardized, such as the issues you heard earlier around sexual assaults in our schools.

I’ve heard that making PCSB the entity subject to FOIA will work just as well. It won’t. PCSB will never collect all of the information from the LEAs and it would be redundant to try. I’ve also heard that making charter LEAs subject to FOIA will take precious time away from teaching. Well, as a charter school parent, I expect my school to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time– and they do. I expect them to be able to teach AND administer statewide testing. I expect them to teach AND manage enrollment and audits. I expect them to teach AND manage federal grant and reporting requirements and on and on. Essentially, we require schools to teach while remaining compliant with the law as publicly funded schools. The occasional FOIA is no different.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.

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

Sandra Moscoso Testimony – Smoscosomills (at) hotmail (dot) com

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”

Committee on Education – June 26, 2019 at 10:00AM, JAWB 412

I’m Sandra Moscoso, a Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan parent, School Without Walls parent and HSA President, and Secretary of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization. I support the At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and the suggestions for strengthening offered by fellow parent Danica Petroshius. I support the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, but recognize it does not go far enough in ensuring students and families have access to critical information collected by schools. I join fellow DC families, teachers, and partners like EmpowerEd in strongly supporting the School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, and look forward to its hearing in October.

Today, I want to focus on why all publicly funded schools must comply with FOIA. Professionally, I have spent almost a decade working on issues of government transparency, helping and learning from public institutions in Latin America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub Saharan Africa. And while I have had the honor of working with colleagues and clients fully committed to transparency, I have also heard every excuse in the book about why public information shouldn’t be shared with citizens. All of those excuses are being murmured in DC and need to be addressed. I will share a few from a list of top 10 excuses put together in 2014 by the Guelph, Ontario City Clerk.

  1. We have data?!?!

We’ve been asked by city officials, including members of council to identify data we want. There is an obsession with itemizing families’ and citizens’ request for information and data. There is also an obsession with evaluating the merits of the information we might want about our children, our families, and our communities. While any given day, families might be asking how their students’ at-risk funds are spent, or whether their child’s testing below proficiency are a one off or represent a school wide need, there are data and information out there today that we might never imagine we’d want. Recent examples include information about lead levels in drinking water and playground turf; or the unthinkable like incidents of sexual misconduct by adults which have hit close to home, in my own daughter’s class. Freedom of information is the most powerful tool families have to support our educators, find opportunities to solve problems, and most importantly, protect our children. Besides, if it relates to our children, our families, our communities, and our taxes fund the work, guess what, it’s our data.

  1. It’s not perfect…it’s not even good…

I agree that we would not want to work in an environment where every word we commit to paper can be scrutinized and there are exemptions in place for this. The reality is that when families are looking for information, it’s to fill in gaps that stand in the way of supporting our students. No one is looking for typos, grammatical errors, or perfection. And if we find something wrong that leads an agency to correct data, then you’re welcome. More eyes on data means higher quality of information.

  1. Its a security risk or data privacy risk! 

This is a very valid concern and I’m glad that agencies and LEAs are taking this seriously. OCTO’s Chief Data Officer, for example, is doing good work around developing data privacy policies, which I hope everyone in this room and online will weigh in on. Furthermore, there are FOIA exemptions in place under DC Code 2-534 which also protect privacy. Privacy should not stand in the way of informed communities.

  1. Someone would need a professional degree just to understand it.

This excuse is not only condescending, but it wrong. Who better to understand and provide ground truth and context to data, than the real data owners.

  1. This is going to be soooooo much work – I don’t have the time!

This is everyone’s favorite urban legend, when in fact, research by EmpowerEd shows that in schools in the 39 states where charter schools comply with FOIA, no school polled received more than 5 FOIA requests in a single year. As our friends from the DC Open Government Coalition remind us, freedom of information compliance is the cost of doing business when your business is funded by taxpayers. 

  1. We already sell it…oh, we don’t?  Well…we should!

Well, this is a good question. It depends on how you look at it. Publicly funded but privately run schools have access to data and information. That information is leveraged for what the Public Charter School Board refers to as market share (I prefer to call them students). Public funds used to build public schools, which generate information and data. Isn’t this information then owned by the public? It’s our information and we have a right to it.

  1. We don’t know what “they” will find…

We know what we will find. Information and data about our students, which can enable us to protect them, and better collaborate with schools to educate them. We will also find our data, because it’s ours.

  1. If we give it to them they will just want more.

This may be true, but what schools get out of it is higher quality data, the opportunity to leverage communities to support students, and potential efficiencies. If we want more, it’s because we are engaged and want to be partners, or because something is wrong that needs to be addressed. We may also want more because, after all, it’s our data.

  1. It will be twisted around to make us look bad!

This may be true and it’s a risk, but looking bad is a small price to pay when we have lives at stake. The risk to student safety, risk of inadequate resources, risk of failing students in their pursuit of education is much much greater.

  1. No, it’s mine and you can’t have it!

This is not true, and we all know it. Our taxes, our families, our communities, our information.

Thank you for your time.