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Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib Seeks ‘Necessary Oversight’ of Charter Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 04, 2020 4 min read
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Legislation from a high-profile freshman in Congress would require charter schools to disclose whether they are managed by a for-profit or nonprofit entity, the salary of each executive at charter management groups, and how much charter-management agencies are spending on schools versus their own operations.

However, critics of the bill written by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, R-Mich., say charters already report some of the information the bill focuses on, and that it attempts to bring under federal control what’s best left to state and local communities to figure out.

The Charter Oversight, Accountability, and Transparency (COAT) Act, introduced late last week, would require charter-management organizations to hold “publicly disclosed and publicly accessible meetings” if they have contracts with school districts. It would also require CMOs to specify the amount of money they spend on advertising and marketing, as well as “any other cost exceeding one percent” of the organization’s budget.

The COAT Act, which has 34 original co-sponsors (those who signed onto the bill before it was introduced) in Congress and is backed by the two national teachers’ unions and other education groups, represents the latest pushback to charter schools from national Democratic Party politicians. Presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have campaigned on requiring more accountability for charters and ending federal funding for charter expansion. However, there’s also evidence that some Democratic voters aren’t keen on curtailing charters.

The proposal also underscores how many prominent Democrats are turning an increasingly critical eye on issues separate from charter schools’ academic performance, such as governance, transparency, and oversight. In a congressional hearing last week, for example, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., highlighted a report from the Network for Public Education, a group critical of charters, stating that many federal charter school grants go to schools that never open or close due to mismanagement.

Charter supporters have pushed back, however, saying that some of NPE’s findings from 2019 about these grants are inaccurate.

In a statement about the COAT Act, Tlaib—who’s one of four members of an unofficial group of progressive lawmakers known as “The Squad”—also framed it as an antidote to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ priorities. DeVos, like Tlaib, is from Michigan, and DeVos was a school choice advocate in the Wolverine State for decades.

“Without the necessary oversight for charter schools, our children will continue to suffer while taxpayers will be caught holding the bill for charter school waste and abuse,” Tlaib said in a statement discussing the legislation. In a video posted on Twitter, Tlaib said her bill “really does put the people in charge of what happens to our kids and to our schools” and cast the issue as one of public funding and oversight.

The legislation would address charter schools with management organizations, but “we have seen far too many instances where students and taxpayers bear the burden of fraud and waste in the federal charter schools program,” Tlaib said. That reflects Democrats’ increased and often critical focus on the $440 million Education Department funding for charter expansion. Last year, House Democrats in Congress sought unsuccessfully to cut those grants by nearly 10 percent; ultimately, Congress kept their funding flat.

However, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers said Tlaib’s bill “puts some contracts in the purview of the federal level, instead of the state and local level with authorizers, where it currently does and should reside. It also requires reporting to the Department of Education, including several pieces that CMOs already are required to report.”

In an interview, NACSA interim President and CEO Karega Rausch said that current charter authorizing practices work well for “hundreds of thousands of families,” but added that, “We need to improve charter oversight. That starts with improving state charter laws and local authorizing practices. Both those things can be true at the same time.”

Rausch also said many charter schools and CMOs already disclose things like executive pay and hold public meetings, calling such activities “typical.” And he pointed to the charter authorizing process used by the Massachusetts education department as a good model for contracts.

“It’s really important to focus on levers that can produce better things for kids and families,” he said. “The contract should make it really clear what the expectations of the school are.”

Photo: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens during a House committee hearing in February 2020 in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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