Creating openness in New Orleans' charter-school movement

communities / Article

Early-morning bus pickups from The Lens on Vimeo.

Steve Beatty is the editor of The Lens, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom in New Orleans. Below, he writes about the impact The Lens is having covering local charter schools.

A unique reporting effort by a Knight Foundation-funded nonprofit newsroom is creating more openness and accountability in the sweeping charter-school movement in New Orleans.

Most recently, the Louisiana Department of Education said coverage by The Lens led officials to issue a “notice of concern” to a charter school board that violated the state’s sunshine law. That board quickly moved to remedy the problem, and it now makes clear that the public is allowed to speak before the board votes on any matter.

Before The Lens wrote about this, frustrated community members simply left the meeting after being denied a chance to speak.

A Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge grant in 2011 allowed The Lens to create its Charter School Reporting Corps, now entering its third school year. An editor oversees a cadre of about 15 freelance reporters who are dedicated to covering every meeting of each charter board in the city. That’s no small task, with 44 boards overseeing 77 schools, and most of those boards meet each month.

The Lens has covered about 95 percent of all meetings in the past two years, and the freelancers have developed other stories out of the meetings that go beyond the meat-and-potatoes coverage of board meetings.

Each board is a public body that has authority to spend public money. Collectively, the independent charter schools have a budget of more than $400 million. Though charter schools were created to cut through some of the red tape and regulation, they are still required to adhere to the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws.

Also in the past month:

  • A charter school delayed a public hearing on its budget when The Lens pointed out that the board didn’t give the legally required advance notice of the hearing.
  • A board circulated a memo to all members stressing that adequate public notice is required, citing the need in particular to get that information to The Lens.
  • A board canceled a scheduled meeting when our reporter pointed out that they couldn’t establish a quorum by having members attend by conference call, a provision of the state’s open-meetings law. 
  • Our coverage of improper billing by the local water authority led a board to seek a refund because they weren’t aware of the allotment of free water provided by state law to all public schools.

Not all of these resulted in a story, but each did result in greater adherence to sunshine laws and the public’s right to know and participate in government.

The Charter School Reporting Corps won kudos from Neiman Journalism Lab over the summer, with a story that quoted a reporter from another news outlet and the head of the state charter association praising The Lens. And the corps won first place for community coverage in the New Orleans Press Club’s 2013 awards. That was in addition to The Lens winning best overall news website in the city for the second year in a row, and best investigative coverage for the third year in a row.

The Lens received its Knight Community Information Challenge grant for one year. In that time, the project proved so successful that two local foundations have stepped forward to continue financing the effort, with other individuals dedicating donations directly to the corps.

People are paying attention to The Lens’ non-schools coverage, too. Earlier this month, the city's inspector general cited The Lens’ coverage of a court matter as the reason he filed an ethics complaint against the auditor for the Sheriff's Office—because the auditor also serves as the sheriff's campaign treasurer.

It is Louisiana, after all. And because of that, The Lens takes very seriously its role as the community’s watchdog.

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