Alexandra Neason of the Columbia Journalism Review asks an important question: Why did the Washington Post write an editorial opposing charter school transparency? The Post has adopted as its slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” A great slogan in these troubling times, but why should charter schools be exempt from scrutiny?

She writes:

“LAST MONTH, CHARLES ALLEN, a member of the Washington, DC Council, introduced the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, which would extend the same sunshine laws applied to traditional public schools to publicly funded charter schools. The proposal came on the heels of suggested reforms put forth by the DC Public Charter School Board. In addition to promoting access to records and meetings, it would also force charter schools to include a list of donations greater than $500 in their annual reports and to include at least two teachers on their boards. (At high schools or adult learning centers, a student representative would also have to be included.) This week, the editorial board of The Washington Post argued against the measure.

“We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation—which seems to be taken from the national teachers’ union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools—is not designed to benefit the public or help students,” the editorial board wrote. The piece goes on to tout the charter school board’s reputation for scrupulous oversight, arguing that it already upholds a requirement that charters “disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources.” Enacting the amendment, the editorial argues, would threaten the schools’ independence with unnecessary bureaucracy.

“In endorsing the obscurity of charter school finances, theeditorial board struggles to see how the release of information—such as the names of charter school employees, salaries, and vendor contracts under $100,000, data that DC public schools must make available—is “critical to student learning.” The editorial board adds that it’s “easy to see how it might help unions in their bid to organize at charter schools.”

“The city’s 123 charter schools, attended by nearly 45,000 students, benefit from $800 million in taxpayer funds every year. The quasi-public board that oversees them is subject to open meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act, but journalists and the public are only granted access to charter school documents in the board’s possession. The board acts as a curator, allowing public access only to information that it deems necessary. This poses obvious problems for parents, who seek information about how their kids’ schools are run, and for journalists, tasked with covering schools that make up a massive chunk of the public education landscape in the nation’s capital. By contrast, California passed a law last monththat would subject its 1,300 charter schools to public records and open meetings laws.”

She points out that charter school advocacy groups, including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools support transparency laws—like the one proposed in D.C.

Why is the Washington Post shielding the charter sector?

The Post says that requiring charter schools to be as transparent as public schools would be an unnecessary burden. That’s not a convincing argument. Why should public schools be required to bear the same “unnecessary burden.”

Neason concludes:

“For a journalistic entity—opinion section or otherwise—to advocate against a measure that seeks to increase transparency is backwards. The editorial board’s stance echoes the arguments of charter school operators, instead of supporting a measure that would improve access to information about taxpayer-funded entities. While journalists across the country work overtime to uphold the values of disclosure, this editorial—from one of the country’s preeminent newspapers, whose tagline is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—isn’t just embarrassing, it’s undermining.”

The editorial board’s persistent defense of charter schools and its insistence that they be allowed to operate however they wish, without scrutiny, is strange.