It’s been a busy session, but reforming the way our charter schools work for our students is one of my top priorities.
State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee has focused her time in office tackling the major issues that are important to the state, and this year is no different. As the sponsor of Senate Bill 1394, the Charter School Transparency and Accountability Act, Brophy McGee is leading the effort to pass the largest charter school reform effort in decades.
Nearly 200,000 Arizona students attend public charter schools, with enrollment growth doubling in the last decade. In 1994, the Arizona Legislature and then Governor Fife Symington established the public charter school system in the state.
Public charter schools are already subject to regulatory requirements including open meetings and public records requirements, must post annual budgets, undergo annual audits, and face oversight by state and federal entities including the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools; the Arizona Department of Education; IRS and more.
According to Brophy McGee, the intention of her reform bill is to strengthen oversight of public charter schools in the areas of charter governance, financial transparency and procurement.
“When I issued a five-point school reform plan during the interim and started to work on it, a lot of my points were aimed at charter schools,” Brophy McGee said.
In the aftermath of some bad actors being publicly exposed in the past year, Brophy McGee is focused on working in a bipartisan and collaborative manner to address these concerns and codify in state law some of the accountability practices that many charters have already implemented.
Her bill currently has eleven Democrat and Republican co-sponsors.
“[Senate Bill 1394] is a good bill to start the discussion. And, I think it incorporates many of the recommendations that the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools (AZSBCS) had that require legislative authority. And, I think it will absolutely lend more oversight and more transparency and more regulation to charter school regulation,” Kathy Senseman, AZSBCS president, said.
The bill makes changes to the structure of the charter school governing bodies. The governing entity must have a minimum of three members and may include no more than two immediate family members. The legislation also requires public charter school governing members and administrative personnel to undergo training regarding open meetings law; public records; student enrollment and discipline; and procurement.
“When I started on the Washington School District governing board, we were getting one open meeting law complaint lodged against the district virtually every week,” said Brophy McGee. “A lot of it had to do with the board’s lack of training and understanding of open meeting law provisions and the type of transparency that is needed if you’re going to work with taxpayer dollars. It is imperative that there be a degree of separation among the board members, so you don’t have blocks voting in favor of whatever the charter operator wants.”
Financial transparency is another key aspect of the bill, requiring financial data be publicly-disclosed and readily available on the website of the charter authorizer, which in most cases is the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. This data must include:
- List of the charter holder and governing body members
- Annual revenues and expenditures, total assets and liabilities
- All related-party transactions: parties, costs and services
- Information relating to the sale, exchange or disposal of assets
- Charter Management Organization (CMO) expenditures and scope of services
“The goal of the bill is that the charter schools transparently disclose their spending; what it is for, in an itemized way, on a website that’s easily accessible to the public, consistent and uniform in comparison to others, and clear about what the money is being spent for,” Brophy McGee said.
Senseman said, “The more information that parents have about all things related to the organization of their charter school is an important decision-making factor. And so, more information is always better and as a charter board we strive to provide as much public information as possible.”
Procurement is the process in which entities purchase goods and services. In Brophy McGee’s bill there are new procurement requirements for all charter schools, which includes:
- School officers and personnel with purchasing or procurement authority must be identified
- Related-party transactions are prohibited unless properly noticed, considered and recorded at a public meeting of the governing body
- Any purchase in excess of $50,000 shall require added record requirements to demonstrate the purchase was made in the best interest of the school
- School employees reporting an alleged violation of procurement laws shall be granted “whistleblower” protection from administrative retribution
- The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is granted authority to enforce this section, upon referral of a complaint from the charter school authorizer, which as stated above is typically the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.
“I’m working with David Bradley, who is now the [Democratic] leader in the Senate, to really look at procurement provisions for charters and tighten up what those are,” said Brophy McGee.
“Being a good fiduciary of state dollars is one of utmost concerns at the charter board. And so, clarifying in statute how that is going to occur I think is important,” Senseman said.
Although Brophy McGee is optimistic about her reform package passing the Legislature, she knows the specifics of the bill will be debated further as she continues to collaborate with legislators and stakeholders.
“This bill is a ‘process bill’ and a lot of people do not understand that’s the case,” Brophy McGee said. “It is a platform of language that addresses various issues. When it is introduced, it goes through the process. As part of introducing the bill, I went to Republicans and I went to Democrats and asked if they would be part of the conversation going forward.”
Referencing competing agendas at the Legislature, Brophy McGee cautions that there are some who wish to eliminate charter schools as a public option for parents. But Brophy McGee is committed to school choice, recognizing the need for improved oversight.
“I perceive there are two agendas down there,” Brophy McGee said. “[One agenda] is to eliminate charter schools as a parent choice option. The other agenda, which is mine and others’, is based on support for school choice, support for parents’ right to choose the best educational setting for their children, recognizing that there must be much improved oversight.
I think [the system] has to be fair, it has to be transparent, it has to be open. It must be accountable to taxpayers.”