AG opines: charters must comply with sunshine laws

AG opines: charters must comply with sunshine laws

(Calif.) A new legal opinion from the state’s Department of Justice paves the way for lawmakers to finally impose clear mandates on California charter schools to comply with good governance laws.

After more than a decade of debate and dispute, Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued what might be the most definitive answer to date as to whether charter schools should be allowed to operate outside fundamental protections the public has to records and meetings of virtually all other government bodies.

In short that answer is, no, charters must comply too.

“The Charter Schools Act was intended to give charter schools ‘substantial freedom to achieve academic results free of interference by the public educational bureaucracy,’” the opinion states. “In our view, that goal is entirely consistent with allowing structured public access to the meetings and documents of these public educational institutions.

“Indeed, the Charter Schools Act itself identifies as its constituency community members as well as parents, teachers, and pupils associated with a specific charter school,” Becerra said in the 23-page analysis.

The findings come at a pivotal conjure for charters in California which, until this week, had enjoyed solid support from the state’s chief executives dating back to 1992, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed the charter authorization bill.

After being pummeled by millions of dollars in attack ads during the June primary that was paid for by wealthy charter proponents, Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to be far less sympathetic.

In the past, efforts to impose open government requirements on charters have either died in committee or drew the governor’s veto.

Indeed, just last summer there was broad support for a bill that would have required charters subject to the same open meeting, conflict of interest and disclosure laws as traditional school districts. But the legislation failed, as lawmakers quarreled over technical questions.

Armed with the new opinion from the Attorney General, however, legislative leaders are likely to bring the issue back.

The legal review, which Deputy Attorney General Manuel Medeiros contributed, came in response to four questions raised by the Lassen County District Attorney surrounding open meetings, public records and conflict of interest.

The heart of the dispute revolves around conflicting legislative ambitions. By adopting the Charter Schools Act, the Legislature wanted to free up charter schools from the bureaucracy that tends to stifle creative reforms. But, because charters are publicly funded, there are deep expectations for public accountability.

The Attorney General argued that charter schools are under “the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools,” as spelled out in the state’s education code. Thus, for the purposes of receiving state money, charters are school districts.

With that established, the state’s attorney turns his attention to the Ralph M. Brown Act—which protects the right of the public to attend government meetings—and the state’s Public Records Act—which defines the limited types of records that can be withheld from the public.

“Both the Brown Act and the Public Records Act broadly  further the people’s right of access to the meetings and documents of bodies conducting the public’s business,” they write. “The promise of public access to public information is fixed in Article I of our Constitution, just as Article IX establishes a system of free public schools under the exclusive control of the public school system. Reading the statutes liberally, we are convinced that the public has a right to expect transparency from charter schools because they are licensed and paid by the state to participate in the core function of educating California’s children.”

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