The state Senate voted early Tuesday to make the records of charter schools, and the management companies that run them, subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, though the names of donors to the schools could remain secret.
“Transparency is much needed,” said Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport. “If we are going to have charter schools in our state, then we should vet them.”
Officials of the state’s largest charter-school operator — Achievement First — and of Capital Preparatory Schools Inc., which plans to open a charter school in Bridgeport, have maintained that they are not public agencies and not subject to the state’s public disclosure laws.
Current law treats charter management organizations (CMOs) as nonprofits, which are subject to disclosure laws only if they are shown to be the “functional equivalent” of a public agency. Because they are not automatically presumed in law to be public agencies, it can take months to get information. The Freedom of Information Commission, the state panel that determines whether information requests were improperly denied, has three cases pending before it for requests that were denied nearly one year ago.
The decision to allow the names of people donating to charter school organizations to remain private was made because of concern that making them public would discourage philanthropy.
“People were concerned about the disclosure of contributors, and that could have a chilling affect on donations and contributions,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, the Senate chair of the legislature’s Education Committee. “We have made the decision in the Education Committee that it makes the most sense not to disclose this.”
But charter operators would be required to disclose everything that traditional public schools are. Documents relating to individual students, medical records, test questions and security will remain exempt.
Requests must be made to the school’s governing council.
Charter school operators opposed the bill.
Achievement First President Dacia Toll told members of the Education Committee in March that complying with the Freedom of Information Act would be “incredibly burdensome” and “would significantly distract, undermine and obstruct nonprofit CMO resources and manpower from its most important work.”
“We want to focus on the work of helping schools change the life outcomes of kids, not processing a litany of FOIA requests from charter school detractors and naysayers,” she testified.
With Tuesday’s vote, legislators also acted to clear up who gets to decide if a new charter school opens.
In a budget deal struck Saturday night, legislators bowed to gubernatorial pressure and included proposed funding for two new charter schools that the State Board of Education approved to open this fall. Those schools began accepting applications, and one signed a lease for a location, even though the legislature has not yet voted to fund them.
The bill makes clear that the state education board — whose members are appointed by the governor — can approve only an “initial certificate” and that a review and formal funding approval from the legislature are required to open.
“That charter school does not exist unless we fund it,” Slossberg said on the floor of the Senate.
The bill also seeks to resolve some gaps in state law that were brought to light last spring after The Hartford Courant began revealing a series of problems at a Hartford charter school and its management company.
Michael Sharpe, the leader of the charter school, Jumoke Academy, had a years-old criminal record for embezzlement, and his charter management organization had hired family members and people with criminal backgrounds.
The bill requires charters to have anti-nepotism policies and to conduct background checks.
The bill was approved 35-1, with Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, casting the lone no vote. The bill now heads to the House, which has until Wednesday at midnight to act before the legislative session ends.