Lavish Lobbying Ensures that Washington, D.C. Charter Schools Remain Unregulated

Rachel M. Cohen is a fine investigative reporter, whose stories have appeared in The American Prospect, The Intercept, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and a number of other publications. Her most recent investigation explores a topic that is much in the news: the seeming impossibility of regulating charter schools more than two decades after enabling legislation across state legislatures—and Congressional legislation for Washington, D.C.—created them as an experiment in innovation.

Government oversight of charter schools makes sense to many of us.  Charter schools are a form of government contracting.  They are publicly funded and privately operated.  As publicly funded institutions, they ought to be responsible for adhering to the laws that protect their students’ rights.  And surely, charter schools ought to be regulated to protect the investment of tax dollars. But in Washington, D.C., as in many other places, charter school operators and advocates continue to push hard against even modest public oversight.

For the Washington City Paper, Cohen investigates the all the forces that have prevented public oversight of charter schools in the nation’s capital—a city where Congress is directly involved in local school district affairs: “When (Bill) Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.” “In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the (D.C.) Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.”

Local leaders demanded additional oversight of charter schools in the District of Columbia for very good reasons: “From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an ‘insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.’  Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to ‘keep their notebooks open’ to conceal the lack of books. At another charter, closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had ‘awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.'”

Cohen’s subject is extravagant lobbying by an array of organizations: “Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself ‘the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,’ more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.  While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS.  Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ ‘voluntary student payments,’ totaling more than $340,000.  In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate.  In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs…  (F)or more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations….”

Cohen continues, “For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away.”

Advocacy by FOCUS expanded suddenly in 2008 when the Walton Family Foundation began contributing: “At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000… A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016.  Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.  As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later, FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations.  According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017 and $165,000 in 2018. In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.”

Other organizations got involved in lobbying for Washington, D.C. charter schools, and many of them have failed to comply with the law by registering as lobbyists. CityBridge, a D.C. foundation led by philanthropist Katherine Bradley, got involved in unregistered lobbying.  In 2015, Democrats for Education Reform DC,  its nonprofit arm Education Reform Now, and its 501(c)4, Education Reform Now Advocacy raised raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures: “By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election… A woman named Catharine Belllinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.”

Even the agency that serves as the sole authorizer for charter schools in Washington, D.C. has become an advocate for the charter sector: “In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools.  But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.”  In 2017, when the D.C. Council considered legislation to set limits on how charter schools could discipline students, “(C)harter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill… ‘As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school… We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.'”

The DC Council is currently considering legislation for the most minimal regulation of D.C. charter schools by subjecting charter schools in the city to freedom-of-information laws: “Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation… seeks to change that… With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again. They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy.”

Cohen describes Shannon Hodge, the executive of a charter school, responding to the proposed legislation to make charter school operations at least more transparent.  In June at a public hearing, Hodge declared: “I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies… We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”  Cohen quotes Royston Lyttle, of the Eagle Academy charter school, agreeing: “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”

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