Newsom promises to take up charter transparency

Newsom promises to take up charter transparency

(Calif.) There may be surprises on the horizon for the California charter movement this legislative session, but Gov. Gavin Newsom signal last week that he would support new transparency regulations on the non-traditional schools isn’t one of them.

After all, Newsom was targeted during last year’s primary by a group of wealthy charter supporters in a series of attack ads that some pundits saw as hitting below the belt. It was the sort of tactic that can backlash on an interest group and in this case probably has.

“We want a charter transparency bill,” Newsom said during his inaugural budget press conference earlier this month. “I’m not bashing charters here, but I made a commitment and I’m going to follow through with that commitment.”

Operational transparency has been an issue that has dogged charter advocates almost since lawmakers authorized the new educational concept in 1992.

Although publicly-funded, the operators of charter schools have been given wide discretion on how to go about providing educational services and are not required to abide by most of the state’s education code. That freedom includes requirements placed on most other public agencies related to good governance laws—the right of the public to open meetings, and access to public records and conflict of interest disclosure.

Officials at the California Charter School Association, which took no known role in the negative ads that ran in the June primary against Newsom, have repeatedly said they do not oppose transparency requirements.

“We stand ready to work with the governor, legislative leadership, and other stakeholders to codify what so many of our schools are already practicing, while respecting the core autonomy and flexibility that has made charters a quality option for over 600,000 families statewide,” said Carlos Marquez, CCSA senior vice president of government affairs in a statement last week.

Indeed, last summer, the CCSA and traditional school representatives were close to a compromise when talks broke down. That was not the first time compromise could not be found over the issue.

Debate over whether charters should be saddled with these governance requirements goes back decades and closely tracks the political infighting between charters and their long-time rival, the California Teachers Association.

The current state Attorney General issued an opinion in December that concluded that charters are covered by the state’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act; and the state’s Public Records Act—which defines the limited types of records that can be withheld from the public.

CCSA argues that most charters already comply with those laws and as a statewide representative, the group supports open and transparent government.

The big problem is the conflict of interest rules.

State law generally prohibits public officials from having any financial stake in the business they help oversee—this is a requirement of all levels of government, including local school districts.

Charter advocates have warned against imposing this restriction on their schools because many of them are the creation of teachers, who both work for the entity in the classroom and sit on the oversight board. There is also concern that such rules would discourage philanthropic support for a charter by a board member with financial capacity to make a low-interest loan or other assistance available.

AB 276 by Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, appeared last summer to have satisfied the charter schools and the CTA, but late in the session, the bill failed.

Part of the reason it failed was the inability of the two sides to agree on the conflict-of-interest question. When it came to defining exactly who or what would be covered, the two sides couldn’t agree.

The AG opinion was also direct in declaring that charter board members were subject to the state’s Political Reform Act, which defines conflict of interest boundaries.

It is important to note that for the first time since the Charter School Act was adopted, the governor may not be a clear supporter.

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