Charter schools are hybrid institutions — part
public and part private. Like public schools, all interested students
have random access to the charter school, and the charters use public tax
dollars to pay for the education. Like private schools, charter schools are run
by their own governing boards or bodies.
But are Rhode Island's privately-run public
charter schools operating effectively, efficiently and in the best interest of
their pupils and community? It is difficult to know without increased
public transparency and accountability.
That’s why I introduced legislation (2018-S
2186) to provide community representation to the governing body of
publicly supported charter schools when a sending community’s students comprise
more than 5 percent of a charter school’s population. The legislation would
authorize school committees to appoint one designee to the board of directors
of the governing body.
Given that the fact that Rhode Island law
mandates that the funding for these charter schools be provided through a
tuition-based model which draws off of municipal budgets, I think it only fair
for those affected municipalities be permitted to participate in the governance
of charter schools.
Charter schools were designed to more
independently experiment to find creative approaches or ideas to improve
education for our young people. It is an innovative approach to education, and
these new approaches or ideas would be shared with the public schools.
However, this independence should not come at the expense of full public
transparency or accountability.
And it all comes back to one of the hallmarks
of our governmental creed: that there should be no taxation without representation.
There are various quasi-public agencies in the
state. Each one of them has some system of oversight or public representation
to hold them accountable. Charter schools have no such oversight, and since
they are funded with taxpayer money, I believe that public oversight is a
necessity. Granted, the small handful of charter schools that are designated as
mayoral academies do have a mayor on the board, but these are in the minority
and that isn’t nearly enough in terms of accountability.
The best way to ensure accountability is by
having representation by elected officials or their designees on the governance
boards of charter schools to approve and monitor the expenditure of public
funds as is required in other public schools.
Our Massachusetts neighbors have addressed
this very issue and have shown us how reasonable oversight can become an
essential part of the charter school governance process. Not only has the
Commonwealth adopted guidelines on the composition, conduct, and transparency
of charter school boards, they also require that charter boards be held
accountable for their fiduciary duties as trustees of public funds.
Rhode Island would be well-advised to take a
page out of their playbook and do the same thing. Providing a voice for the
district taxpayers who paid for the charter schools is both appropriate and
just. Transparency and Accountability to the public should not be just for
This is good public policy for Rhode Island. A
little bit of sunshine benefits everybody.
The author, James C. Sheehan is a state
senator representing District 36. He resides in North Kingstown.