Elusive Transparency In Charter Schools

Even though they make up less than 7% of all schools in the U.S., every year hundreds of news articles highlight the persistent lack of transparency and accountability in the crisis-prone charter school sector.

Even worse, everyone is under pressure to stand passively on the sidelines and watch as these outsourced privatized schools, which siphon billions of dollars a year from public schools, operate with impunity.

Nearly 31 years after they first appeared in the U.S., privately-operated charter schools remain immune to pro-social reform and are plagued by endless problems. Ceaseless reports from the mainstream press and the alternative press on the lack of charter school transparency and accountability have not translated into meaningful and lasting reforms. Governments at all levels have failed to defend the public interest and reign in charter schools. More charter schools equal less money, fewer facilities, and diminished authority for the public schools that educate 90% of the nation’s youth. Far from solving any problems, school privatization has created new problems and exacerbated existing ones.

Chalkbeat recently reported that Some Newark charter schools fail to fully comply with transparency rules. In reality more than just “Some Newark charter schools fail to fully comply with transparency rules.” Every state with charter schools has many charter schools, not just “some,” that abdicate basic responsibilities. And if past experience is any indication, accountability and transparency will remain elusive in the charter school sector for years to come.

One of the main ways charter schools in New Jersey and elsewhere evade openness and honesty is by not informing parents or the community about certain meetings and events even though open-meeting laws require such public announcements in a timely fashion. This is one of the many ways privately-operated charter schools differ from public schools even though they are called public schools. Privately-operated charter schools are frequently not open or forthright about their activities and leave the public out of the equation. Many charter schools in Newark and elsewhere do not even post updated and recent meeting minutes on their website. Chalkbeat reports that:

Shannon Francis Esannason, whose son is in eighth grade at one of the group’s [charter] schools [in Newark], said she had no idea the board met last week. The meeting was not advertised on the school’s Facebook page, Instagram account, or calendar, and Francis Esannason said she did not receive an email notice. “They don’t invite us to the meetings,” she said. “It would be nice to know what’s going on.

New Jersey law requires charter schools to post “board meeting minutes online and releasing agendas at least 48 hours before public meetings.” In a review of numerous charter school websites, Chalkbeat found that:

many Newark charter schools had not posted the agendas or minutes of recent board meetings. By contrast, Newark’s traditional school district publishes detailed meeting agendas and minutes online, as well as videos of every board meeting.

When Chalkbeat reviewed the websites of Newark’s 17 charter schools it discovered many problems with transparency and information accuracy. Here is a short list:

  • only two schools had posted agendas for their most recent board meetings
  • 12 schools had not posted meeting minutes since November or before
  • nine schools did not appear to post any meeting agendas

Chalkbeat stresses that:

Charter schools’ failure to keep the public informed about their board proceedings is significant, as more than a third of Newark’s public school students attended charter schools last year and $300 million, or 28% of the district’s budget this school year, will go to charter school students.

Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers University professor who has studied New Jersey charter schools, asserts that, “Whenever public money is involved, I think you expect to have a high level of transparency. If there’s no transparency, it’s very difficult to have effective oversight.” For his part, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, points out that the state education department in New Jersey “does not always fulfill its duty to monitor charter schools’ compliance with the law.” This lack of charter school oversight and accountability is certainly not unique to New Jersey, it permeates the whole charter school sector; many states overlook or ignore violations in the charter school sector.

At the end of the day, funneling enormous sums of public money away from public schools and into the hands of private interests that run nontransparent charter schools is a serious violation of the public interest.

In this context, it is worth recalling that, unlike public schools, none of the nation’s roughly 7,500 privately-operated charter schools is run by a publicly elected school board and about 90% have no teacher unions. On average, charter schools also hire fewer nurses and more inexperienced teachers than public schools. It is also important to appreciate that New Jersey’s charter schools intensify segregation. Further, in 2020, investigative reporters at North Jersey Record updated an extremely detailed multi-part report on widespread fraud, waste, corruption, lies, and mismanagement in New Jersey charter schools.  Again, such problems and crimes are not unique to charter schools in New Jersey, they plague the entire crisis-prone charter school sector coast to coast.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.