Chartering a Course toward Access
Lemberg, Jeff, News Media and the Law
Charter schools learning to comply with state freedom of information laws
Steve Bivens heard all the rumors, but it wasn't until local school officials began stonewalling his reporters that he knew he was on to something big.
As producer for the "undercover unit" at KTRK-TV in Houston, Bivens had his reporters send freedom of information requests to nearly 50 area charter schools in search of financial records as well as the names, positions and dates of birth of all school employees. Most school officials refused to comply, which led the state attorney general to eventually issue an order requiring them to supply the information.
"A lot of them thought they didn't have to turn over their records," said Bivens, whose station aired the story "Bad Apples" in November 2001. "'We're not a public school in the traditional sense, so we don't have to give you our records,' they'd say. But they were wrong."
What the station eventually discovered was a charter school system gone awry.
The financial records showed that a handful of charter school officials used taxpayer money to make purchases such as leather outfits, lingerie, jewelry and even dog food. Enrollment records had been falsified to acquire more per-pupil funding from the state. Employee records showed that more than a dozen teachers and staff had criminal records, including rape and murder convictions.
"There is no explanation for these problems, other than we should've done a better job watching them," Bivens said.
In most of the 40 states that have laws allowing their creation, charter schools are hybrids, neither fully private nor fully public. Run by nonprofit organizations and private management companies - state laws differ in their details - charter schools operate largely through public financing, yet without many of the bureaucratic procedural requirements imposed upon "traditional" public schools. As a result, it is not always clear whether their records are open to the public, and to whom school officials are accountable.
In addition to money generated through fund-raising or supplied by private corporations, all charter schools receive state and local funding on a per-pupil basis, approximately $5,000 on average. For that reason alone, most states consider their charter schools to be public institutions that are subject to the same public accountability laws - open records and open meeting laws among them - any other state agency or government body must follow.
The problem, many journalists say, is that a state's "considerations" and a definitively worded law are two vastly different things.
A 2002 report by The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that more than half of the states that have a charter school law initially provided the schools with "blanket waivers, under which schools are accountable only for the terms of their charter, plus health, safety and civil rights requirements." The result, wrote authors Paul Hill and Robin Lake in "Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education," is mass confusion on a statewide scale.
"The political process churns out more than mixed signals about the purpose of the law," they found. "Accountability provisions of the law are often similarly vague or misaligned within a particular piece of legislation."
Missouri's law, for example, says a charter school is an "independent, publicly supported school" that must only "comply with laws and regulations of the state relating to health, safety and minimum educational standards." Otherwise, the 2002 law says charter schools are "exempt from all laws and rules relating to schools, governing boards and school districts."
Yet, James Klahr, an assistant attorney general for Missouri who handles clarifications of the state's open records law, says government regulations of publicly funded groups are not that black and white.
"It seems to me an argument can be made . …