Charter schools must have sunshine, too

The 2021 session of the Iowa Legislature will end in a few weeks, and one big issue moving toward a final vote would make charter schools easier to create as an alternative to the traditional K-12 public schools.

Others can debate the pros and cons of charter schools and House File 813, the bill that is awaiting debate and a vote in the Senate. That’s not my purpose here today.

But I want to sound a cautionary note:

If the Legislature wants to make it easier to establish these independent schools and provide them with state tax money to operate on, then lawmakers should amend House File 813 to ensure these schools are subject to Iowa’s public records laws.

As written, the bill already states that meetings of the charter schools’ boards of directors would have to be open to the public. But the only records the bill mentions that would be open to the public are the annual budget for the charter school, the annual report it submits to the Iowa Department of Education, and the report on each school the department issues once a year.

This is far from adequate.

Unlike private K-12 schools that operate on tuition paid by the students who enroll there, the proposed law prohibits charter schools from charging tuition. Instead, their operating funds would come from Iowa’s taxpayers, the same revenue source the state’s K-12 public schools rely on.

If charter schools are not required to comply with the public records laws, Iowans would be deprived of important documents and information they deserve to properly evaluate how these schools use, or misuse, the tax money they have been provided.

The legislation, by design, gives charter schools more autonomy than traditional public schools.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, an Orange City Republican and House floor manager of the bill, told colleagues: “Charter schools serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across the country. These institutions give educators the freedom to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs.”

The schools could be organized by a local school district, with the approval of the Iowa Board of Education, and would operate as part of the district. More likely, however, the schools would be organized by an interested group or an education management company, with the permission from the state board. They would be independent from the local public-school districts.

Whichever way a charter school is created, it would receive the same amount of state education funding, per pupil, as Iowa’s public K-12 schools receive each year. That now is about $7,230 per pupil.

The legislation was approved last month, 55-40, by the Iowa House.

There is still time for lawmakers to require charter schools to provide the same access to their records as public-school districts must provide. That legal obligation should go hand-in-hand with receiving per-pupil state school aid, plus additional money to support teacher salaries.

Educating our children is a fundamental mission of the state. Charter schools’ governing boards should be held to the same standard of openness and accountability as the state’s 330 public school districts.

It comes down to this: If organizers of charter schools want tax money to finance their operations, then they should be subject to public records laws. And if they don’t want that scrutiny, then they can organize as a private school and operate on a tuition model.

There should be no room in Iowa for taxpayers to be denied access to how their taxes are being spent. Period. 

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Pen City Current is a member of the IFOIC.

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