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Does the public school system reflect a gold standard of transparency?
Maybe. Maybe not
Jan. 29, 2023 6:00 am, Updated: Jan. 30, 2023 4:22 pm
There was a time I wondered if the dream of school choice would ever be realized in the Iowa Legislature. After several years of trying and failing, Education Savings Accounts are finally the law of the land in Iowa. It will not be without its complications, but new or old, show me a government process that is executed perfectly and I will show you the unicorn that lives in my guest bedroom.
I’m not oblivious to the fact that those who are opposed to ESAs are some of the louder and angrier voices in the debate. Rather than make my own projections about why the liberal left hates school choice (such as the fact that the teachers’ union that acts as an ATM for Iowa Democrats can’t grow its ranks in a private school) a lot of my focus has been on the specific arguments against school choice.
Last week, I explored the notion that private schools have no accountability and pointed out the high standards for accreditation for nonpublic schools in Iowa. Public and private institutions face a surprising number of identical standards, especially when it comes to accreditation.
I received quite a few responses to my column on accountability last week. And while no one wanted to claim that private schools have inferior standards of education, some claimed that they have inferior standards of transparency compared to public schools.
I’m happy to consider that argument. It remains true that public and private schools are different systems with different processes, and private school operations are not subject to scrutiny from the public as a whole. But some contend that private schools cannot be duly accountable for their practices without the same transparency rules imposed upon them as public schools.
I maintain that accountability is not limited to public scrutiny. Even without it, a private school has myriad ways — and reasons — to keep their operations on the up-and-up. Beyond that, I am unmoved by that assertion that public scrutiny is the a school’s only acceptable standard of accountability for a simple reason: I’ve noticed that rules on paper don’t always equal obligations met in practice.
My own alma mater serves as one example. In November 2021, Jacob Hall, writer and publisher of conservative editorial site The Iowa Standard, made a public records request with the Linn-Mar Community School District in Marion after parents reached out to complain about “Trans Week” recently observed at the high school, which was planned and put on by a school-sponsored organization.
State law says that because public school districts are a “government body,” those records must be produced. The same law allowed the school district to charge Hall a “reasonable” amount to cover the costs of providing them. After initially quoting a fee of $504, the district then clarified that the fee was for communications from a single employee. Hall had sought any and all communications between Linn-Mar staff about “Trans Week.” The total cost for “staff time to retrieve the records and attorney time to review/redact confidential information for the entire district,” wrote the school official, would total around $604,000.
That figure drew fire from both the left and the right, and for good reason: It was preposterous. With no evidence to the contrary, it was also perfectly legal. If Hall was intent on proceeding with his request for any and all communications from district staff and board members, he would have either had to pay the $604,000 in full, or legally contest the reasonableness of the fee with no guarantee of prevailing.
Even after Hall narrowed his request to communications from a small list of specific employees over a specific one-month period, he still had to pay $652 for 57 pages of information, a figure that would still be prohibitive to many wishing to utilize the guarantee of transparency to hold their public schools accountable.
Some might dismiss Hall’s experience because of his conservative ideology. But the skepticism surrounding the early departure of Dr. Tom Ahart, former superintendent for the Des Moines Public Schools, is hardly limited to right-wing ideologues. Did the standards for transparency touted by defenders of the public system ensure that the district met its obligations to its residents? You be the judge.
The last several years of Ahart’s tenure had multiple controversies. In 2019, Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, criticized Ahart in an editorial for blaming a lack of state funding for the closure of a ninth-grade school and the sale of an administrative building. At the same time, according to Evans, Ahart hadn’t shared with residents that the district had almost $100 million in SAVE tax revenue available for building needs. One week after voters approved a tax levy to supposedly address the DMPS’ crumbling infrastructure, plans were revealed for DMPS to partner with Drake University to build a brand-new soccer stadium to be shared between the two institutions. DMPS was to contribute $15 million.
Residents from the district were unhappy enough with DMPS and Ahart’s seemingly mismatched priorities that they organized to attempt another form of accountability specific to the public system — a public referendum to vote on the district’s use of SAVE funds to build the stadium. Although the group collecting the signatures contended they had more than enough to force a referendum, a ruling on a technicality from the Iowa Supreme Court allowed the district to reject the petition — and the attempt of 7,120 residents to hold their district accountable.
“Rules on paper don’t always equal obligations met in practice.”
After a clash with the state that almost got Ahart stripped of his administrator’s license over defiance of a law requiring a return to in-person learning during the pandemic, the DMPS voted in 2021 not to renew his contract. Instead of finishing out the contract, which was set to expire on June 30 of this year, Ahart instead tendered his resignation effective June 30, 2022, a full year before the expiration of his contract.
Despite the voluntary separation last summer, the DMPS board inexplicably agreed to pay Ahart his full salary of and benefits through the end of this school year. His separation agreement also stipulates that should his participation be required to resolve any legal issues arising from his and the district’s refusal to reopen schools during the pandemic, he is entitled to be compensated at the hourly equivalent of his old salary, or $147 per hour, for doing so.
Opponents of school choice who claim lack of transparency in private school decision-marking imply that because per-pupil dollars come from state taxes, institutions who receive those dollars should have strict transparency standards. But district residents and state taxpayers will likely never know why DMPS agreed to pay a former employee who left on his own accord amid seemingly rocky circumstances almost $400,000 for not working. While open meeting laws that cover school boards do not extend to personnel considerations, any details not covered by confidentiality protections are likely still off-limits to concerned citizens. Ahart’s separation agreement with the district stipulates that a “mutually agreeable statement” will act as the “sole statement” from both Ahart and the district regarding his separation and its terms. Your questions as a taxpayer will not be answered.
I frequently say that a law’s intent and its effect are two separate things. Situations like those involving Hall and Ahart illustrate that public transparency rules don’t always live up to the standards they’re intended to reflect. Operating under a law does not guarantee that a system is meeting its obligations to public trust. Does that mean that the rules of public systems are inferior to the procedures of private organizations? Not at all. Each has its advantages and its drawbacks, and to pit one against the other is helpful to neither. But now that funding can follow each student directly to the institution of their choice, maybe Iowa is on the verge of creating a diverse system that bolsters accountability in both.
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