Connecticut taxpayers invest in a number of public services that make our lives better — police and fire departments for our communities, public parks, roads, and mass transit, and the single most important investment: public education. Charter schools are a member of that public school system, and this year, state lawmakers changed the law to make them even better for taxpayers, communities, and importantly, the families who need them.

They did this by allowing modest but vital growth at existing charters while also strengthening accountability laws. Legislators listened to school leaders, families, and even national and local experts to make smart changes. What resulted is a better system of accountability for charter school academic and financial performance, and new mechanisms for transparency.

And despite claims from the foes, this is an improvement to an already strong system. Charter schools are already the most accountable public schools there are. They are the only public schools that are automatically closed when they fail to perform. This is something we don’t do in local districts.

The additional requirements passed this June, most of which are supported by the charter community, strengthen and codify that accountability. Many of these practices are already the standard for many public charter schools across the state.

Those changes include a number of new procedures:

• Charter schools are now required to annually share best practices with their host district;
• More explicit expectations for the performance of the state’s charter schools;
• Required submission of annual audits and 990 forms to the state;
• An updated annual report process that objectively assesses whether each charter is meeting its goals, criminal records checks for charter and charter management organization (CMO) employees, as well as conflict of interest and anti-nepotism policies, and;
• A new requirement that any contract between a charter schools and a CMO must outline the roles and responsibilities of the CMO and how the CMOs performance will be evaluated.

The charter community did not always agree with some of the changes that were proposed over the course of session. Let me explain why.

We strongly believe taxpayers should understand where their dollars are spent, but that we should not add additional burdens to non-profit organizations. CMOs often perform functions beyond just running charter schools, and that should be respected. The standard has never been and should not be that all organizations performing work for the public good must comply with FOIA — that’s why we don’t subject Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross to FOIA. Rather, a strong, fair process already exists to determine whether a non-profit constitutes the “functional equivalent” of a public agency. And either way, agreements and information shared by non-profits with public entities are eligible through FOIA via those public entities.

In short, all work a CMO does with a public charter school is already subject to FOIA.

Legislators thankfully recognized this, and after listening to thoughtful testimony from charter leaders and the Connecticut Association of Non-Profits, ultimately rejected a blanket application of FOIA to CMOs. Instead, they added a new provision explaining that charter schools are entitled to receive a copy of all CMO records relating to the administration of the school. This shift clarifies the existing law. Charter schools were already subject to FOIA like all other public schools.

All things considered, we thank lawmakers for making reasonable changes to the law in the face of some really awful ideas swirling around Hartford. This was a good first step toward strengthening a law that hasn’t changed much since 1997. However, accountability and transparency are only half of the equation — flexibility was missing entirely.

When national experts came to the Capitol to testify on the law, they made it clear that Connecticut lags behind other states in this area, and is missing a number of nationally-recognized best practices. There is no mechanism for high-quality charter schools to replicate and reach more children, nor is there a way for quality boards to work with additional schools. And most importantly, the way charter schools are funded is unreliable and inequitable — like all other public schools, it’s truly and fundamentally broken.

The essential bargain of a charter school is increased accountability for increased flexibility, and while some progress was made, there’s more work to be done.

We look forward to strengthening our entire charter law, with an eye on flexibility and a better system for funding schools, so that more children in Connecticut can have access to quality choices, like public charters, in their communities.

Jeremiah Grace is Connecticut State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the non-profit membership association for public charter schools in Connecticut.

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