Elizabeth Regan file photo
Rally of charter school kids outside the state Capitol (Elizabeth Regan file photo)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a bill Tuesday that requires charter schools and their management organizations to provide more information to the state about their finances.

The so-called “charter transparency” bill will require the state Education Commissioner to continue to monitor and audit one charter school each year. It also requires each charter governing council to adopt anti-nepotism and conflict of interest policies and requires all employees, including those in charter management organizations, to undergo a background check.

Those provisions of the bill are related to an investigation into the now defunct charter management organization that ran Jumoke Academy in Hartford. The investigation found rampant nepotism and a lack of background checks. The state Board of Education, which hired the independent counsel to conduct that investigation, also immediately implemented a policy to regarding nepotism, conflicts of interest, and background checks.

The new law, which was approved the last night of the regular legislative session, also requires charter schools to provide the state with an audited statement of revenues from public and private sources.

The law also changes how new charter schools are to be approved going forward, removing some of that authority from the state Department of Education and placing it in the hands of the legislature.

Under the measure, rather than the state Department of Education granting charters, the department will be empowered to grant applicants an “initial certificate,” but the charter will not be granted until the legislature approves its funding in a budget bill and the governor signs the bill.

“The number of charters that will happen in the state will now be clearly governed and limited by the amount of funding that the state of Connecticut and this General Assembly deem appropriate for said purposes,” state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said during the House debate.

Malloy had insisted on including $4.6 million in the state budget for two new charter schools in Stamford and Bridgeport. Opponents of the new charter schools insisted on making sure the bill was passed in order to ensure more accountability to the private charter organizations that operate on public funding.

There had been rumors that the Malloy administration would try to neutralize some of the transparency measures in this bill through an implementer, but that never happened.

Rep. Ed Vargas, D-Hartford, said they agreed to the two new schools because they knew they had the transparency bill to see what was happening.

AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel said the bill is a “game changer” for parents and students.

“The new law sets Connecticut on a path toward making sure that all schools receiving public dollars are held to the same standards,” Hochadel said in a statement Wednesday. “Before the governor took action this morning, our state’s 19-year-old charter school law was among the weakest in the nation when it came to transparency and oversight. It lacked any mechanism to hold public charter schools or their private charter managers accountable for academic, administrative, or financial functions.”

Charter management organizations and their advocates largely opposed the transparency measures.

Jeremiah Grace of the Northeast Charter Schools Network panned the legislation, saying the legislature missed an opportunity to “meaningfully” improve the state’s charter law, opting instead for a “mish-mosh of proposals that fail to move the needle.”

Grace also said his organization does not support measures “that unfairly target non-profit charter support organizations with harassing document requests and public smear campaigns. Nor do we support the creation of an unnecessary ‘initial certificate of approval’ process for new charter schools that only erodes the state Board of Education’s authority to make educational decisions outside the politics of the statehouse.”

The Coalition for Every Child described the legislation in positive terms:

“Increased accountability is a hallmark of the charter school movement, and this bill takes us forward in a productive way,” Kara Niedhardt, a spokesperson for the coalition, said. “However, there is still much work to do when it comes to the process of approving new charters, and we look forward to continuing that conversation over the months and years ahead.”