Tuesday, March 18, 2003

It isn’t enough that the D.C. Board of Education openly opposes school choice, or that the board has near carte blanche authority over public education. Now, it wants to snatch from parents the one true choice they have for opting out of troubled schools: independent public charter schools.

The D.C. Council, courtesy of the school board and Chief Financial Official Natwar Gandhi, is considering a legislative proposal that would put charter schools under the thumb of the CFO. Currently, the federal school reform act mandates that charter schools are free to essentially hire their own auditing firms. Doing so is but one way that charter boards exercise their autonomy and maintain their independence from the red tape that often hinders principals, teachers and student progress in traditional public schools. That autonomy is precisely as things should be.

However, Brenda Belton, the school board’s new monitor of charter schools, told us that there is “no uniformity” among the auditing standards and auditing formats used by the various charter schools. For Mr. Gandhi, the issue is more complex. This fiscal year’s budget act specifies that the CFO be held accountable for the funds obligated to and spent by charter schools.

While we certainly understand the precarious predicament this places the CFO in, the remedy is not to diminish the autonomy of charter schools. “Such legislation is completely unnecessary and is antithetical to the idea of charter schools,” said Robert Cane, director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. “The District public charter schools oppose it. … Although entitled only to the annual financial report, under the school reform act, the chartering boards require all of the charter school to submit financial report monthly.” If any of those reports reveals fiscal mismanagement or that a school is no longer solvent, chartering authorities can close the school. On several occasions, the school board has exercised that very authority and that, too, is as things should be.

Interestingly, the CFO is in control of the purse strings of D.C. public schools, yet school authorities continue to mismanage and overspend their annual budgets. There are no guarantees the CFO would not try to control charter school spending, too.

D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the education panel, told us yesterday that he does not want charter schools stripped of their autonomy, but that he understands the CFO’s dilemma. We do, as well.

Instead of changing the law to suit the CFO, the council should rescind the law that holds the CFO responsible for fiscal accountability of charter schools.

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