Commentary

Marc Winger | Charter Schools Need Transparency

When I was the superintendent of the Newhall School District, we were embroiled in questions, conflicts and lawsuits over the legitimacy and operation of a controversial charter school in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

The conflict was set off when the elementary school opened in Newhall after being approved by a school district 20 miles away, despite the fact that the charter’s petition had been rejected by both the Newhall and Saugus school boards due to fiscal and programmatic concerns. 

The William S. Hart Union High School District also dealt with this organization and ultimately found it necessary to revoke the Hart-approved high school charter’s petition due to ruinous fiscal mismanagement. The following year their elementary school also failed. 

California’s Charter Schools Act is over 25 years old. The proliferation of charter schools has revealed many ways that the law is inadequate, contains loopholes, and can be abused or ignored by unethical, and even criminal, charter operators. Stories about charter schools’ waste, fraud, fiscal mismanagement, discriminatory enrollment practices and other abuses can be frequently found in California’s newspapers. These abuses hurt students, families and taxpayers. 

One lesson I learned from our experience in Newhall was that charter schools, while funded with taxpayer dollars, can have a cavalier attitude toward the “good government” laws under which traditional school districts operate. Charters can act opaquely when it comes to the Brown Act and other open meeting laws, they can ignore or dissemble in response to Public Records Act requests, and they can have obvious conflicts of interest with employees and advisory board members. It’s unacceptable for charter operators to operate in secrecy or hold private, non-publicized meetings that discuss how public dollars should be spent. It’s unethical to have conflicted members of their boards. 

The current legislative session in Sacramento will consider a variety of charter school reform bills, including those that address charter school governance, authorization, appeals, location/siting, and transparency. The first to be heard by the Senate Education Committee, SB 126, requires the full complement of good governance laws to be applied to charter schools and their management organizations: the Brown Act (open meetings); Public Records Act (open books); and two laws preventing conflicts of interest: the Political Reform Act and Government Code 1090. 

SB126 provides parents and taxpayers transparency and accountability for the expenditure of public funds. This is nothing more or less than is asked of traditional public schools. It will prohibit charter school board members and their immediate families from financially benefiting from their schools through the application of existing conflict of interest laws. It will require charter schools and organizations that manage them to make public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts. 

Simply put, the bill makes clear that transparency in the use of public funds is required.

The business of public schools — and make no mistake, charters are state-funded, public schools — should be transacted in public. Like traditional school boards, charter board meetings should be clearly publicized and conducted in open sessions. Like traditional school districts, charter school use of public funds should be open to public scrutiny. Like traditional school board members, charter board members should not have conflicts of interest regarding their services or donations to the school, or even have the perception of such a relationship. Anything less is an unacceptable double standard. 

At the bill’s first hearing on Tuesday, Santa Clarita Sen. Scott Wilk, a member of the Senate Education Committee and supporter of good government laws and regulations, voted “aye” to move the bill along through the legislative process. I thank him for that vote.

Open government and the protection of school funding are good public policy. Assembly members Tom Lackey and Christy Smith, and Sens. Henry Stern and Wilk should vote “aye” when SB126 comes to their respective floor votes. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled that he will sign SB126 into law. Charter schools will be required to act like other publicly funded schools, and taxpayers and parents of charter students will be the beneficiaries. 

Marc Winger is the former superintendent of the Newhall School District. He served in that capacity for 18 years, from 1997 through 2015.

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