Will a new Connecticut law shine more light on charter school companies?

A Connecticut bill that makes charter schools and their management companies more accountable and transparent was signed into law by Governor Daniel Malloy.

Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut called the new law “a game changer.”

“Before the governor took action (and signed the bill), our state’s 19-year 0ld charter school law was among the weakest in the nation when it came to transparency and oversight,” said Hochadel. “It lacked any mechanism to hold public charter schools or their private charter manager accountable for academic, administrative, or financial functions.”

But other public school supporters said that the new law doesn’t go far enough.

Wendy Leckler, an attorney with the Education Law Project and resident of Stamford, Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant that the new law doesn’t require full financial disclosure by the firms that operate charter schools, especially those with operations in other states.

“If they want public dollars,” said Leckler to the Courant. “We need to see what’s going on (with their finances).”

When the new session of the Connecticut General Assembly convened, charter school reform was on the agenda.

A consensus about the need for reform developed after an investigative report by the state Department of Education documented abuses by one the state’s major charter school management organizations, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE).

The report focused on the finances, governance, and operations of FUSE and one of its schools, the Jumoke Academy.

The report found a number of questionable financial practices by FUSE. For example, FUSE charged Jumoke a management fee but provided few if any management services. In fact, Jumoke provided payroll services to FUSE.

In addition, the FUSE Board of Directors never met, and FUSE CEO William Sharpe made decisions without any oversight.

The report also found evidence of nepotism and embezzlement.

The state’s other charter school operators seeking to limit the fallout from the Jumoke/FUSE investigation jumped on the reform bandwagon.

As a result, a strong charter school reform bill was drafted and introduced.

One notable provisions of the original bill made charter management organizations (CMO) subject to the state’s freedom of information laws.

Proponents of public education argued that charters and CMOs should be subject to the same public scrutiny as public schools.

Before the Department of Education began its investigation into FUSE/Jumoke, the Courant was conducting its own investigation into finance and governance issues at FUSE.

Reasoning that FUSE’s school were public schools and thus were subject to the state’s freedom of information law, the paper made a freedom of information request to the CMO, but FUSE refused the request saying that it wasn’t a public agency and therefore wasn’t subject the law.

CMOs and their lobbyist supported most of the reform bill but objected to the provision that made them subject to the freedom of information law.

As a result, the original bill was amended.

The freedom of information provision was eliminated and replaced by language establishing a complex process for acquiring information from CMOs.

The amended version also shielded CMOs that do business in other states from full financial disclosure.

A last-minute attempt was made to further weaken the bill. An amendment that would have made it even more difficult to obtain information from CMOs was slipped into the budget implementer bill.

But that attempt failed after AFT Connecticut alerted lawmakers to the stealth campaign and mobilized its members to oppose the new amendment.

Finally on July 9, Gov. Malloy, a strong supporter of charter schools, signed the reform bill.

The new law “will go a long way toward strengthening the quality of charter schools,” said Hochadel. “It also provides CMOs and their boosters a shot at restoring the public trust.”

But others are less sanguine.

Robert Cotto, a member of the Hartford school board, said that the provision protecting CMOs doing business outside of Connecticut is especially irksome

“We don’t know if all of that money is going for Connecticut schools,” said Cotto to the Courant.

Public schools and the agencies that oversee them operate under strict open records laws that foster transparency. The new Connecticut law is an attempt to require the same transparency from private companies that operate charter schools. Whether the law will achieve this goal remains to be seen.

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