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For Charter Schools, Transparency is Not a Given

November 12, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow
Accountability is the key to any successful interaction between government and the public. Minnesotans need to know public money is being invested in a responsible manner.

For schools, this means that school boards must make their meetings open to the public and provide meeting minutes to anyone who asks for them. Failing to do so not only violates Minnesota's Data Practices Act but also creates an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety.

This is especially true of charter schools. A Minnesota 2020 examination found that nearly one in four charter schools in Minnesota failed to provide board minutes when asked. Unlike traditional schools whose boards are elected by the general public, charter schools are run only by people affiliated with the school itself, either as employees, parents or sponsors. This means that although hundreds of thousands of public dollars flow through charter schools coffers, citizens at one-quarter of the schools have no idea how the money is being spent.

Not opening your documents to the public "gives the signal you're not open to the public," said Michael Vadnie, a lawyer and professor of Mass Communications at St. Cloud State University. "This is the government deciding to keep secrets they're not entitled to. When an organization is afraid that someone's looking over their shoulder, that's usually bad."

The accountability research was conducted in concert with our report, "Checking in on Charter Schools, A Review of 2008 Financial Management Practices," which was released Tuesday.

In August, 2009, Minnesota 2020 sent a letter to Minnesota's 154 charter schools asking them to provide the last official set of board minutes by mail, email or fax. If the school places minutes in its web page, we asked officials to tell us how to access them. Of the 154 charter schools, 36 did not respond, leaving a response rate of 76 percent.

Minnesota 2020 performed a similar check in November, 2008, that resulted in a 30 percent failure rate. Sixteen charter schools failed to respond both years.

Here are the schools that didn't respond to requests for minutes in 2009. An * denotes the charter schools that did not respond to requests for minutes in both 2008 and 2009:

Best Academy
Bright Water Elementary           
City Academy*
Community School of Excellence
Dugsi Academy*
Duluth Public Schools Academy*
Dunwoody Academy*       
ECI' Nompa Woonspe   
Great Expectations               
Great River Education Center*
Harvest Prep School/SEED Academy*
High School for Recording Arts
Higher Ground Academy*   
Jennings Community Learning Center*
Kaleidoscope Charter School
KIPP Minnesota Charter School
Michael Frome Academy
Milroy Area Charter School
Minneapolis Academy Charter School
North Lakes Academy
New Century Charter School   
New Millennium Academy School*
Odyssey Academy
Paladin Academy
Pine Grove Leadership Academy*       
Prairie Seeds Academy*
Prestige Academy Charter School   
Recovery School of Southern MN
Rochester Math & Science (Adam Abdulle)*
Rochester Off-Campus Charter High
Sage Academy Charter School*           
Spectrum High School
Skills for Tomorrow Charter School*               
Twin Cities International Elem. School*
Waynewood School of Hope
Yinghua Academy*

Transparency is the only method that any public entity has against the foul odor of suspicion that is bred by those who would twist the good things we can do when working together. Parents working with educators working with students can create a generation of Minnesotans who can think critically and be part of an effective workforce in the 21st century.

"People should have access to what's going on with public dollars," Vadnie said. "It doesn't matter if they want to give it to you or not. It's the law."

In our recent charter school report, we made several recommendations to help charter schools that have trouble maintaining an accurate set of books. With very slight alterations, those recommendations can easily apply to those schools that have trouble making records public. We say the state should:

  • Revoke charters with schools that repeatedly refuse to release public documents;
  • Hold sponsor organizations legally accountable for the release of those documents;
  • Organize mandatory, basic training on public information for all charter school board members and administrators before they are allowed to conduct any business as charter school officials;
  • Direct charter schools to send constituent parents an easy-to-read report card each year that notifies them of all financial infractions found in their yearly audits and offer parents all available choices for their children to attend more professionally managed school districts.
With these changes, we hope the above-named charter schools will begin to better serve Minnesota's students.

 

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