Opinion

Cantor — Public Is as Public Does: When Charter Management Organizations Resist Public Records Laws

By David Cantor | September 22, 2017

The normalizing of charter schools proceeds at land-record speed given the typical pace of educational change. To wit: Gentrifying white families, for lack of “good” schools, now demand charters, create and recruit for them. Kids on TV shows attend them. The phrase “public charter school” snakes its way into standard usage.

All of which speaks to why it was surprising and disappointing to read in Monica Disare’s Chalkbeat story Thursday that New York City’s largest and highest-flying charter network, Success Academy, doesn’t consider it necessary to provide information about its operations despite public records laws that govern all public schools in New York. (Um, at least in theory: the actuarial odds are probably against you if you’re waiting on a response from the DMV-like NYC education department. The 74 recently waited nearly 500 days for a response to a public records request.)

SA agrees that its 46 individual schools are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, just not what goes on among the people who run the network. Disare wrote, “[Success CEO Eva] Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them.

“Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.”

Legally, Moskowitz and her staff don’t work for Success Academy charter schools; they work for Success Academy Charter Schools, a CMO. And while they say they will answer records requests when they want to, their lawyer told Chalkbeat the network “is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

That’s debatable. Disare reports that Bob Freeman, New York’s top open records official, told her work done for an organization that falls within FOIL’s ambit is FOILable.

To be fair, other charter networks share Success’s view. But there’s a more basic existential and policy question. How can a charter claim to be a public school — a “public charter school” — but ignore questions of performance and management every district school must have an answer for? To the extent this circumstance is true, charters are like public schools that have offshore accountability shelters.

No one knows the costs of education battles better than Moskowitz; perhaps no one has had a record of educational and managerial achievement so clouded by politics. Resisting transparency, though, seems more likely to provide aid and comfort to Matt Damon and the unions for whom she is public enemy number one.

Disclosure: The 74 board member Campbell Brown also sits on the board of Success Academy.

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