Chartering a new course in education: Part II

This two-part package is intended to break down and explain the bills and their potential impacts, taking into account the local context and history of charter schools in our community, as well as the views of those in favor, and those opposed.

The relationship between charter schools and Santa Clarita Valley public educators began within years of the 1992 Charter School Act being signed, with charter schools coming in to help students who had fallen through the cracks, according to local officials.

However, the tides of the relationship turned when public school districts began to see issues arise in how charter schools impacted their operations.

Charter school advocates have argued against the new proposed state legislation, saying parents have a right to choice in their children’s education. They cite the successes of many charter schools, which provide unique learning experiences for children in need of a nontraditional environment in which they can grow academically.

“Charter schools are getting scapegoated,” said Tina Diem, a parent at iLEAD Schools’ founding campus, Santa Clarita Valley International, a K-12 charter school overseen by the William S. Hart Union High School District. “I don’t think my school is going to be directly affected.”

However, the argument for niche educational services is being exploited, according to the proponents of the new legislation. They argue the financial challenges that come from declining enrollments hurt the general student population by making it harder for the districts to afford to meet the niche needs that, in theory, charter schools were meant to address.

Public schools receive state funding based on how many students attend classes each day, a mechanism known as average daily attendance or ADA funding. If enrollment drops, so does revenue.

“What happened was, under state legislation, the desire by Gov. Jerry Brown was wanting to expand and open up more charter schools to provide better education,” forner Hart Board President Steve Sturgeon said, mentioning the effect this had on the Santa Clarita Valley schools.

New charter schools approved by districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District made sense, he said, but Santa Clarita Valley schools, both at the elementary and high school level, have always provided high-quality education. “So, when state legislators started passing more rules for charter school acceptance, it became more problematic for Santa Clarita schools,” Sturgeon said.

The History

The relationship between charter schools and public schools started with schools considering the relationship mutually beneficial in the 1990s.

“In terms of state law or charter law, they’re supposed to be coming to us and offering us something that’s not being provided by the school district, so they just couldn’t come in and open a charter school and offer the same programs we offer,” said Sturgeon. “There has to be something unique about it.”

The charter schools, which are largely independently run schools that receive state money, provided services that the local public school districts, like Hart District, couldn’t or, struggled to, provide (things such as services for special needs students, students with behavioral issues and homeschooled children). In exchange for approving their charter, public school districts received a small portion of the school’s average daily attendance, or ADA, funding from the state.

Schools such as SCVi came into the Hart District and began to offer unique services in the classroom while also assisting the homeschooled students. Learning Post, for example, helps with adult and continuing education, according to Sturgeon. The students who normally wouldn’t have received the services they needed, did, he said.

SCVi serves students who thrive in its setting, according to the school’s co-founder.

“We serve a niche that is project-based learning, entrepreneurialism and social-emotional growth,” said Amber Raskin, founder and executive director for SCVi. “I think it’s a smaller environment where we’re able to personalize the curriculum.”

Every few years, the schools are required to open themselves up to oversight to the district’s governing board while the school’s charter is considered for renewal.

However, the relationship between charter schools and local public school districts changed toward the end of the early aughts, with the arrival of Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Science, a school that would eventually be denied its charter by a number of districts within the Santa Clarita Valley, according to Marc Winger, former Newhall School District superintendent who was in charge when the NSD denied a petition from Einstein Academy.

“It was very clear to us that they knew nothing about teaching kids who were learning English as a second language,” Winger said, mentioning a significant portion of the NSD population that presents challenges in a traditional classroom setting. “It was clear that they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

However, despite being denied by NSD and the Saugus Union School District, Einstein Academy ultimately received approval of a charter by the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, and then opened a campus directly across the street from the Newhall School District’s main office in Valencia — despite headquarters for AADUSD being about 20 miles away, Winger said.

“This was just a crazy loophole,” Winger said of the law, adding that, in his belief, the provision to the Charter School Act of 1992 was supposed to allow a charter school to open up near the district boundaries in case there wasn’t any space immediately available within the confines of the chartering district’s boundaries.

Einstein had already opened a seventh- to 12th-grade school chartered through the William S. Hart Union High School District. But elementary school districts in the SCV let AEA officials know that its model was not welcome.

“The elementary school districts made it very clear they didn’t want any charter schools,” said Mark Blazer, the founder of Albert Einstein Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “If you wanted to open up a Burger King, and you had to go to McDonald’s to get the license, you wouldn’t get it. Bureaucracies never want competition.”

Blazer said the school fulfilled the “niche” requirement, but that the school districts were antagonistic to Albert Einstein Academy because it “hurt their bottom line.”

“We offered a small-school environment, where students who needed extra help, or were being bullied at other schools, and students were getting college prep help,“ said Blazer. “I think what happened was the declining enrollment … it made districts much more worried about losing students … losing revenue.”

The Newhall School District actually filed a lawsuit against AADUSD and Einstein trying to stop the school’s operations; however, the elementary school and high school were ultimately closed after a Hart District audit raised concerns for officials who denied the high school’s renewal in 2017, with the elementary school following suit not long after.

“The school districts were fighting us, suing us and they were trying to get legislation passed,” said Blazer. “They tried to bankrupt us through lawsuit.”

Contemporary Times

Some charter schools, such as SCVi, haven’t had a similar experience with their charter school districts, and have questioned the need for some of the additional regulations that the Series 1500 bills represent.

“I would like to say there are people that abuse the system, but I think there is enough oversight because (Einstein Academy) was shut down,” said Raskin, in regard to questions of oversight on charter schools and how that reportedly became a problem with Einstein. “We’re required to share a budget, do site visits, updates to the board. … I would say that all industries have companies that abuse the system.”

“I don’t feel like our school is in jeopardy,” said Diem. “But in terms of school choice across the whole state, I feel like every family in California should have the opportunity for school choice.”

And while district officials across the Santa Clarita Valley have said they’re not opposed to charter schools as a whole, all the elementary school district governing boards signed resolutions in support of Series 1500.

“The board supported the resolution because we believe when charter schools are organized they should adhere to a level of quality,” said NSD Board President Sue Solomon. “We’re not against charter schools.”

Sulphur Springs Union School District faculty and board signed the resolution, and cited their own issues with Gorman Learning Center — what SSUSD believes is a charter school, but GLC officials call a “resource center” — which is sponsored by the Gorman Elementary School District in Gorman.

“The one thing we want to say is not about charters being bad charters,” said SSUSD Superintendent Catherine Kawaguchi. “The problem with this is that they’re calling this a ‘resource center,’ but it’s not a resource center. It’s a fully operational school that’s running, and so we’re looking at it as, are the children over there being provided with a quality education and who’s overseeing their operation?”

Gorman Learning Center officials say, however, that their program is designed to help homeschool students with their classwork a few times a week, and is therefore a “resource center” as opposed to a Monday through Friday traditional school, according to the Santa Clarita Resource Center Supervisor Julie Malchus.

“All I know is what we do is serve a population that can’t attend the traditional public school,” said Malchus. “I truly believe in choice in education … and I don’t like that some people who are trying to take that choice away. Children aren’t cookie cutters.”

The school currently serves 600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and is located directly adjacent to Sulphur Springs Community School on the 16000 block of Lost Canyon Road. Credentialed teachers on staff at GLC meet with at the Gorman Learning Center San Bernardino / Santa Clarita  — which is currently chartered out of the Lucerne Valley Unified School District, nearly 100 miles away.

“We have to answer to our chartering district. We’re still looked at by the state, and we still take the (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress) CAASP testing and the requirements are still the same,” said Malchus. “There are a lot of people who don’t believe in homeschooling. I think there are families that it wouldn’t work for and there are those that it does.”

“We don’t have a problem with parent choice. It goes back again to who is overseeing the operations of that school?” Kawaguchi added. “Plus a lot of the children that would be going into our schools are going there, and we don’t think they’re being served.”

Hart School District

The only school district in Santa Clarita that did not approve the resolution was the Hart District, the chartering school district for SCVi, among others.

When asked about what would happen to SCVi based on the upcoming legislation, or what would happen once SCVi’s charter comes up for renewal, Bob Jensen, president of the Hart District board, said, “I can’t comment on that because I believe we will be having further discussions when they come up for renewal. And it would be premature to address that at this time.”

“In general, we try and work with charter schools and if we feel like charter schools can add something to the district, and if that can add to additional educational opportunities, we’re open to them,” said Jensen. “We are responsible for them, and we have oversight over them.”

In the meantime, the fate of charter schools across the state and in Santa Clarita will remain in question, amid calls from parents like Diem who still see a definite demand for school choice.

“I honestly don’t know (what would happen if iLEAD was forced to close), but we would have to leave the state,” she said. “And I have no interest in leaving the state of California. I was born and raised here. It breaks my heart, but my kids’ education is more important.”

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