TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Public schools, private profit — charter school operators must obey state disclosure laws

Charter schools may operate in a public/private twilight zone when it comes to obeying state education regulations, but when it comes to open-records and open-meetings laws, these publicly funded entities must be publicly accountable, an Ohio judge’s recent ruling reaffirms.

In an October 2011 opinion, Ohio Common Pleas Judge John F. Bender held that a private, for-profit management firm overseeing the operations of charter schools is a “public official” under Ohio law. The ruling was a victory for the operators of charter schools who are suing the management company, arguing that the Ohio Open Records Law entitles them to examine the company’s books.

That ruling reinforces Judge Bender’s earlier opinion, issued in August 2011, that White Hat Management Co. must provide a detailed accounting of how it spends public money. The schools challenging White Hat claimed that the management company made an insufficiently detailed disclosure following the August order; White Hat continues to argue that it has made all of the disclosures that the law demands.

The underlying case involves a dispute between White Hat, an Ohio-based management company that operates 53 schools in six states, and nine of its charter school operators over their revenue-sharing agreement. But the principle at stake — that charter schools are state entities and must obey state disclosure laws — is a useful one for any journalist covering the education beat.

Charter schools took flight in the early 1990s as an alternative to traditional public schools, exempted from some of the state-dictated curriculum policies that are binding on ordinary schools. They’re known as “charter” schools because they operate under a grant of authority issued by the government — and therefore, are exercising state power and receiving state operating funds. That has been enough for most legal authorities to conclude that, even if the charter’s operators are set up as private corporations, they are bound by the same “sunshine” laws that apply to government agencies.

Ohio courts are by no means alone in directing charter schools to obey the same public accountability laws that apply to any other publicly funded school.

In 2008, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court directed a charter school to comply with that state’s open-records act. “[C]harter schools, as independent public schools created for the purpose of providing the essential governmental service of education in a constitutionally mandated manner, are necessarily included among the agencies that are subject to the Right-to-Know Act,” the court ruled.

And in a 2001 advisory opinion, Florida’s attorney general said a charter school corporation must open its records and meetings to the public even before it has enrolled its first crop of students, just as an ordinary public school would be subject to disclosure laws before school starts.

Journalists who want to attend the board meetings of charter schools or to view their business records should not accept at face value the assertion that privately incorporated school management companies are entitled to keep secrets. Schools that accept public money to perform a public duty are subject to public disclosure laws, no matter what the sign over the door says.