No Classrooms,
No Teachers,
No Playgrounds,
No Standards 

California’s bizarre charter-school experiment

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
Photo by Noel Neuberger
This article is part one of a three-part series.

BELINDA ROLOFF WAS WORRIED ABOUT HER SON. It wasn't that his Sacramento-area public junior high school was bad, it was a question more of attitudes and values. She respected his teachers' abilities, but the school's cultural perspective bothered her. It seemed to her that homosexuality was promoted as a viable lifestyle, something she found in conflict with her religious beliefs. And she worried about sex and drugs, that 15-year-old Jonathan was vulnerable to bad influences. Then she heard about Horizon Instructional Systems.

Horizon, a public charter school, would support her in teaching her son at home, and not only would it be free, Horizon would provide her with everything she needed -- textbooks, tutoring, a computer, Internet access, even paper and pencils. She could select from a bounty of teaching aids and services, and no one would tell her what to teach or how to teach it. She could even provide the kind of moral and religious instruction that would be considered unconstitutional in a regular school. And the state would pay the tab.

Roloff quickly signed her son up, enrolling him in what would become the nation's largest charter school, with as many as 3,300 students. She went with Horizon because "I wanted the resources -- and the guidance and the help."

Schools like Horizon -- which has no actual curriculum, classroom buildings or classroom teachers -- are not what most people think of when they think about charter schools. But in California, they are the norm, constituting approximately one-third of the 300 operating charter schools. Charter schools that specialize in "off-site" students account for about 40 percent of all students enrolled in state charter schools outside of Los Angeles. Such charters may be the definitive contribution of California to the nation's charter-school movement.

"Right now it's difficult to find these schools outside California," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, an avowedly pro-charter, school-reform advocacy organization. In reviewing her national directory of charter schools, Allen was hard-pressed to identify more than a handful of comparable schools. "Most other states require a physical place for kids to show up."

These "independent-study" charters have become a state-funded haven for families who don't want their children in traditional brick-and-mortar schools for any reason -- whether because the regular school is too hard, too easy, or just too crowded or impersonal. These schools have especially found a clientele among religious families uneasy with the state's curriculum or the effects of peer pressure. Such schools have proliferated largely unnoticed, in part because their massive student populations are spread out over wide areas.

For each student enrolled for a full year of attendance, the state pays the charter school at least $4,000. The school then covers administrative and instructional expenses for the child. But unlike traditional schools, home-school charters don't have the expense of campuses, cafeteria services and student busing, among other things. They also cut costs by paying teachers by the student or by the hour, often at less than union-negotiated wages. With all those savings, all of a sudden, you have thousands of dollars to redistribute. Ultimately, the money can be invested in the student, skimmed off by the sponsoring school district or even inserted directly into the charter operator's pocket.

Exactly what happens to these funds is hard to track, because charter schools have not been held to public-records laws. Although auditing standards have been tightened, specific auditing requirements are established locally and can differ widely from one school district to another. And no official statewide effort is in place to provide quality control or regular oversight.

The state's experiment with charter schools, established by legislation passed in 1992 and modified several times since, demonstrates once again that in education new is not always better. Most of the cumbersome rules of the education code exist for a reason, and freedom from these rules does not automatically make for a better school. The notion that it would is palpably illogical.

Still, charter schools are unquestionably the latest flavor of the month in education reform. Both presidential candidates in this year's election praised them as the wave of the future. Many educators, too, have hopped on the bandwagon, with an ardor reminiscent of that once spent on behalf of past presumed breakthroughs such as whole-language instruction, bilingual education or new math.

California is one of 36 states that permit charter schools. State legislators initially capped the number of charter schools at 100, but that limit has been removed. The state's current stable of charters, which last year served about 103,000 of the state's 5.95 million students, is ever increasing, with the state Education Department certifying new charter schools at a rate of about 10 a month.

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