On Dec. 26, when Californians were more focused on holiday celebrations than legal matters, the state’s Attorney General published a report with enormous implications for charter schools and their authorizers. The 23-page opinion assessed issues of transparency, accountability and conflict of interest and concluded that — contrary to current practice — charter schools should have to comply with the same laws on these matters as other public schools.
“We are presented with a series of questions about whether charter schools in California are subject to the same public-integrity statutes that apply to traditional public schools. For the reasons set out below, we conclude that charter schools are subject to these salutary laws,” the AG’s Office said in its analysis.
Before arriving at its non-binding opinion, the AG’s Office considered four fundamental questions:
- Are a California charter school and its governing body subject to the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act?
- Is a California charter school’s governing body subject to Government Code section 1090?
- Is a California charter school’s governing body subject to the Political Reform Act of 1974?
- Are the books and records of California charter schools subject to review and inspection by a grand jury?
The AG determined that the answer to all four questions is “yes,” a conclusion that will likely impact how the Legislature approaches bills related to charter schools in 2019 and beyond. The findings reflect arguments that CSBA has made for a number of years as well as the recommendations in CSBA’s recent report, Uncharted Waters: Recommendations for Prioritizing Student Achievement and Effective Governance in California’s Charter Schools.
That report, which grew out of the work of CSBA’s Charter School Task Force, highlighted the need for clearer standards for both authorizers and charter schools, stating that, “All entities that operate with public funds must be held to high standards of governance. While there has been much debate about whether the Brown Act, the Public Records Act, the Political Reform Act, and Government Code 1090 apply to charter schools, the Task Force strongly believes that they do, and this must be cemented in every charter contract at the school level. If these laws apply to locally elected public school boards, then they must apply to charter schools and their boards that receive public funding, without exception.”
Uncharted Waters declared that CSBA’s top legislative priority regarding public schools should be to, “Improve charter school governance and transparency by requiring charter governing boards to comply with the Brown Act, Public Records Act, Political Reform Act, and state conflict-of-interest statutes.” Among other measures, Uncharted Waters recommended that charter board meetings be open to the public with posted meeting agendas and meeting minutes, that charter board members be accessible to the public and that the finances of each charter school be open to public scrutiny.
The Attorney General’s report largely echoed those conclusions and validates years of advocacy work on the topic of charter school transparency, accountability and conflict of interest.
“CSBA has been pursuing legislation on this topic for many years — through two governors who vetoed bills on their desks,” said Assistant Executive Director for Government Relations Dennis Meyers. “All along, CSBA felt these laws applied to charter schools as they are public schools, spending billions of dollars annually in taxpayer money. The four provisions in the AG’s report represent very basic transparency and conflict of interest requirements and we will be sponsoring bills in 2019 that codify these provisions as law.”