Brophy McGee's charter school reforms strike the right balance

These are real reforms to ensure that our charters schools are transparent and efficient.

https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/2019/02/24/arizona-charter-school-reform-bill-imperfect-right/2918179002/?utm_source=azcentral-Opinions%20News%20Now&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=baseline&utm_term=list_article_thumb

For almost a year, Arizona’s public charter schools have been working together to address questions about governance and fiscal transparency for the state’s 556 public charter schools.

Understanding that the actions of a few outliers have rightfully caused concerns, the public charter sector has engaged in conversations with lawmakers, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Office and community leaders.

The goal is to make sure all public charter schools reflect the high standards of integrity the vast majority of the industry embraces.

Elected officials took on the challenge and came up with Senate Bill 1394 – better known as charter reform legislation. After much debate, SB 1394 passed out of the Senate Education Committee this past week.  

Some argue this bill doesn’t go far enough. Others oppose it for going too far. Many, however, believe this bill strikes the right balance.

This bill offers accountability

Senate Bill 1394 — led by Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee and other lawmakers from both parties, including my husband Democrat Rep. Lorenzo Sierra — offers real solutions when it comes to balancing public charter schools’ statutorily guaranteed autonomy with rightfully expected accountability.

So, let’s explore SB 1394 and what it offers taxpayers.

The proposed legislation would require local governing boards to have at least three governing body members. It also specifies that not more than two immediate family members may serve simultaneously on the governing body of the same charter school. In addition, it would prohibit immediate family members from being the majority of the governing body members of the same charter school.

Put another way, SB 1394 puts into Arizona statute what is required by the Internal Revenue Service in order to qualify for and maintain a 501(c)(3) non-profit status.

Additionally, this bill would require governing board members and key school administrative personnel to participate in a governing board training.

The training would cover important aspects of governance, including open meeting laws, public records requirements, enrollment laws and regulations, applicable procurement rules and student discipline.

It also offers fiscal transparency

Under SB 1394, the sponsor for a charter school must annually compile and publicly share information about the governance and operations of each public charter school it sponsors. These requirements rely heavily on the Form 990, used by the IRS to enforce spending, conflicts of interest, and purchasing regulations for non-profit organizations.

Non-profit public charter schools will share their Form 990, filed annually with the Internal Revenue Service. For-profit public charter schools would be required to disclose the same information.

In other words, taxpayers would be able to see and review financial information that meets – and in some cases, exceeds – the same information the IRS requires in order to remain a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in good standing with the U.S. government.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the IRS describes the information contained on the Form 990 this way. “Organizations also use the Form 990 to share information with the public about their programs. Additionally, most states rely on the Form 990 to perform charitable and other regulatory oversight …” 

In addition to this disclosure, the sponsor of a charter school would annually compile and publicly share information such as the names of voting members of the governing board, an adopted conflicts of interest policy for the governing board, total revenues received by a public charter school and how much is spent on items such as teacher salaries, special education, facilities, administration, and other services.

How we know this is good policy

It is sometimes said that the evidence of good policy is when no one is completely happy with it. If that is true, SB 1394 has all the makings of good policy.

The public charter school sector, lawmakers, community leaders, parents and stakeholders have worked together, at times making concessions, in order to create meaningful legislation that fosters renewed taxpayer confidence. Equally important, it ensures good stewardship of the investments in almost 200,000 students whose families choose charters.

If ultimately signed into law, the legislation does a good job of ensuring that Arizona’s public charter schools offer an increased level of transparency by meeting the same accountability standards as required by the IRS.

This is good legislation, but is it good enough for the Arizona Legislature? I say yes, but now it’s up to them.