From the Mailbag: Is Charter Legislation Inconsistent with Democratic Control of Schools?
One of the most challenging aspects of charters and choice that our society is struggling with are the potential incompatibilities with democratic and community control of schools. Last year NEPC recently released a report entitled Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education. I previously discussed the brief in context of Community-Based Accountability. However, i think the brief also has important implications for school choice.
The NEPC press release stated:
“Local control” has been a bedrock principle of public schooling in America since its earliest days, but a new report concludes the concept “has all but disappeared” in discussions of education policy.
The report, Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens of the University of Colorado Boulder, examines the impact on democratic ideals of vanishing local control over education…
In a healthy democracy, schools play a key role in preparing citizens. A healthy democracy also depends on citizens engaged in democratic governance. And since schools sit at the center of most communities, local democratic control over schooling has long been highly valued in the United States.
Howe and Meens describe local control as “the power of communities, made up of individuals bound together by common geography, resources, problems and interests, to collectively determine the policies that govern their lives.” As regards schooling, this typically refers to control by elected school boards and their constituents.
The same is true of the reform policies that have been advanced by President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan. “Despite Obama and Duncan’s rhetorical support for greater local control of schools, the reform instruments that their policies are based on are clearly antithetical to it,” the authors write.
Howe and Meens explain the importance of a balance between local control and federal and state regulation. In a democracy, there is a presumption of local control, which may be overridden when it has undemocratic consequences, as in de jure segregation. But such a justification does not exist for the recent federal education policy take-over.
They conclude with a series of recommendations. One of them was specific to charter schools and choice:
Curtail the privatization of public education resources. Instead, build up democratic values by holding schools receiving public funds accountable to the public through democratically elected school boards and other democratic institutions.
Is democratic control of our schools threatened by proposed charter legislation? A reader who wishes to remain anonymous wrote the follow about SB2, the latest proposed charter school bill in Texas.
I am concerned regarding proposed changes to the Texas Open Meetings law contained in SB2. SB2 is ostensibly an education bill concerning charters however it proposes certain changes to the open meetings laws to be carried out by the Commissioner of Education, by rule.I believe these changes are contrary to the intent and purpose of promoting open government. I have attached a copy of the version now being modified by the House committee. Key provisions in the original Senate version however are unchanged.The text of the Bill is highlighted beginning on page 8 of the attached version of the Bill.
Below are some comments regarding the effect of these changes.
Section 11: Amending applicability of the Open Meetings Act
The amendments are a blow against transparency and the Texas Open Meetings Act. The amendment purports to amend Section 12.1051 of the Education Code as it applies the Texas Open Meetings Act (the Act) to Texas charter schools. Existing charter schools have been able to comply with the Act intended to provide for transparency in public school operations. This amendment would definitely stifle the public’s ability to become involved with and to seek redress from charter school boards. The amendment is internally inconsistent with itself and with existing law, as follows:
- The amendment to TEC § 12.1051(c) would change the public notice requirement under the Act from 72 hours to 48 hours. However, the amended TEC 12.1051(d)(1) provides for meeting notice subject to the applicable requirements of meetings, and that requirement is 72 hours.
- The amendments would add language at 12.1051(c) requiring posting on a charter school website. But, Texas Open Meetings Act already requires this for school districts and by extension of existing law for charter schools—this amended language is duplicative of existing law.
- The amendments create a special exception for charter schools to conduct meetings by telephone conference or videoconference—even when a quorum is not gathered physically at one location. While video-conferencing is currently permitted under the Act, still, a quorum must be present in at least one location. The amendments as written would permit, for certain open-enrollment charter schools only, an entire meeting to occur, by video or telephone, at a location or locations where no directors of the board are gathered together.
This would stifle the ability of the public to seek remonstrance before the board, as is the non-delegable duty of a charter school operating board. Moreover, such license to virtually meet in such a manner, without even identifying a reason or motive, would conflict with the very purpose of the Act.
These concerns likely outweigh the inconvenience created by the Act itself—which is a necessary balance between public transparency and openness with convenience to the board.
- In direct conflict with years of Attorney General and judicial interpretations of the Act holding that the board members must be physically in Texas and accessible to the public, the above item, for no reason offered, would permit certain charter school board members to be out-of-state when they are calling-in or videoing in to a meeting.
Overall, the amendments have the Commissioner of Education adopting rules controlling the Texas Open Meetings Act, when traditionally the Act is controlled by and regulated by the Texas Attorney General.
Page 5 of the attached version of SB2 also would create other changes which would be new and novel in the context of school boards.
Sec. 12.1011. CHARTER AUTHORIZATION FOR HIGH-PERFORMING ENTITIES. The amendment to the law being proposed would provide for a corporate entity to be a member of the charter holder (school) board, with the power to replace other members of the board.
I learned about HB2414 this morning and reviewed that bill. It apparently extends the concept of videoconference meetings even further. Government bodies covered by this act would no longer be required to have at least a quorum gathered at one location. It appears you could have a meeting of such governmental body with no board members actually being present in the geographic area that body represents. I assume that such members need not be present in the state in order to meet. I have not received clarification on this last point from the bill’s sponsor.
Are these proposed changes for charters inconsistent with democratic control of schools? The common refrain is that parents “vote with their feet.” Is that truly democratic control of school, choosing to spend your money at Walmart or Target, or is that a market mechanism masquerading as democracy?
Meta questions: Why do “reformers” seek to codify seemingly anti-democratic provision into law? Do charters and the school choice movement have to conflict with the American tradition of democratic control of schools?
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