By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In California, two operations, Horizon and a company called the one2one Learning Foundation, have become the home-school charter equivalents of the Coke and Pepsi corporations -- loaded with business savvy, marketing skills and a product that slakes a thirst for something different. Horizon Instructional Systems was founded in a small-town school district; one2one's first school, Sierra Summit Academy, was started by an out-of-state company in a remote, even smaller setting. But both have evolved into charter "chains" that are now operating statewide and moving into the Los Angeles area.
The Roloffs feel they are reaping real benefit from Horizon. In his traditional school, Jonathan Roloff, now 18, had fallen well behind in schoolwork because of a persisting case of pleurisy. And he wasn't coping well with teen pressures, anyway. Neither of Jonathan's older siblings had thrived in a traditional high school.
"I didn't want one more kid to go through that," said Roloff. "Jonathan wasn't into drugs, but I could see that he was starting to be influenced. He wasn't getting his work done. It was a matter of intervention."
Still, critics have questioned the quality of education that students receive at home from Mom or via computer. "Learning is a social activity," said Terence K. McAteer, the schools superintendent for Nevada County, which borders the home counties of both Horizon and Sierra Summit. "Learning takes place in more than one modality. All studies say that you can't learn just looking at the computer. A child is an audible learner, a kinesthetic learner, and learns in other ways, too. And you don't get all those modalities from a computer, or from a teacher who comes to you once a month. No one has come up with a system to replace a qualified, hands-on teacher, especially for primary-school kids."
RANDY GASCHLER, THE 50-YEAR-OLD FOUNDER OF Horizon, would consider it an intrusion for his school to mandate how its students are taught. "The job of a parent is to instruct their children," he wrote in a letter to one critic. "My perspective would be that Horizon has absolutely no right or desire to be involved in the decision of what a parent uses to instruct their child . . . Our school embraces the parent's right to choose which philosophy best suits their own child. In order to do that, we give up the school's right to force any one particular philosophy on the student." He added, "Horizon does not require parents to teach anything or even to teach, only that students learn, nor do we prevent it."
Gaschler opened for business in August 1993, less than a year after legislation authorizing school districts to sponsor charters took effect. He very quickly drew state attention because of his rapid enrollment growth: from a 25-student start-up to 1,300 students in the fall of the school's second year. One state Education Department administrator suspiciously noted that Horizon Instructional Systems abbreviates to HIS, which seemed to him a thinly veiled welcome mat to conservative Christian families who wanted to circumvent rules banning sectarian teaching in public schools. Gaschler scoffed at that theory, but acknowledged that like a number of other charter schools, Horizon initially used state funds to purchase sectarian materials, including those that openly proselytized or touted the biblical story of creation as scientifically preferable to Darwin's theory of evolution. Warnings from the state prompted Gaschler to end the practice. He now permits state funds to be used only for legally allowable materials, though nothing would prevent a parent from teaching creationism without Gaschler's help.
Any state official who made an early site visit to Horizon would have had ample cause for consternation -- or at least surprise. The entire physical site of Horizon, with one of the largest enrollments in the state, was one battered double-wide trailer that Horizon shared with an English-as-a-second-language program.
"At the time, the state didn't provide any money for charter schools to obtain facilities," Gaschler explained. "This was what the school district gave me to work in. I think the school district was able to get it because it had been condemned."
Times have changed.
It's now difficult to drive down a street in diminutive downtown Lincoln, California -- oak savannah country, about an hour's drive northeast of Sacramento -- without passing an office space connected to Gaschler's operation.
Gaschler didn't invent the home-school public school, but he refined the business model as no one had before, and expanded in breathtaking fashion, going from 25 students to 600 at the end of his first year, and rising as high as 3,300 students at Horizon. Now he has five more charter schools and about 6,000 students in six counties, spanning the state from the Sierra to the Northern California coast to San Diego County.
When Gaschler decided to expand beyond his first school, he formed Innovative Education Management (IEM), which acts as the "virtual" school district for his charters, which are charged a 7 percent management fee. Gaschler said his wage is set at approximately what a superintendent would earn for a school district with the number of students he manages: $107,000.
At Horizon, each student's annual education allotment, which has risen to $1,400, can be used to purchase textbooks, CD-ROMs, educational games, preserved frogs for dissection, globes, music lessons, musical instruments and special small-group classes in almost any subject that parents want to organize through the school. Parents cannot convert the allotment to cash -- that would be illegal under laws passed specifically to prevent that. Any materials purchased remain the property of the school, just like textbooks in a regular school. Unlike many Los Angeles schools, which have been short on textbooks, computers and the like, Horizon has to cope with the burden of tracking and storing its ever-growing mountain of education materials.