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The school also loans a computer to most students who request one. Students get high-speed Internet access and online educational materials at no charge, whether they use the school's computer or their own. Gaschler estimates that 94 percent of his Ã£ students have a computer at home, about 60 percent of those from the charter school, from its stock of more than 4,000 computers purchased in the last four years. If parents want it, an Internet filter also is provided to screen out pornography.
And while parents may choose to take charge of the teaching, Horizon provides a state-certificated "education specialist" to oversee student programs, collect documentation and attendance records, and offer general help and advice. Families consult with the specialist at least once every 20 days, as much as one hour per week. Does a student need private tutoring at home in algebra? That can be arranged, as a charge against the $1,400 instructional fund. So can a small-group class in German, for example, if a group of parents join forces to request it. The local school district doesn't offer German, noted Gaschler.
Gaschler and his business manager concede that they've not reinvented the wheel when it comes to administration. He's created a school district without boundaries, but his nonteaching staff of 140 functions very much like a traditional one in terms of payroll, accounting, risk management and personnel. This reality flies in the face of a major assumption embraced by both the charter movement and many critics of public education: that charter schools would prove a model of efficiency by cutting away bureaucratic "fat." In fact, some research indicates that many charter schools are spending more on administrative costs than their public school counterparts. That's not surprising given that start-up charters are often run by inexperienced managers. Besides, they frequently have to function like miniÂschool districts, without a school district's economies of scale. Gaschler considers his operation relatively lean, yet most of his cost savings have not come from cutting away fat, but from doing away with school buildings and higher-salaried full-time teachers. Teachers are paid per day of student enrollment. It typically works out to about $1,000 per student per year.
GASCHLER BECAME AN EDUCATOR LATER IN LIFE. After starring as a 6-foot, 225-pound second-team All American center for the UCLA football team in 1972, Gaschler spent several years as an assistant football coach at UCLA and Southern Illinois University. In 1976, he returned home to Placerville, California, near the town of Lincoln, with an invigorated religious conviction: "In college, I was an atheist, because it allowed me to live the way I wanted to live. But that changed when I realized that the Bible could not have been written by human hand," he recalled.
In 1978, he opened a cabinetmaking shop, after discovering during the construction of his home that he had a talent for it. Then, for seven years, he owned an auto-parts store. He started teaching at age 40. While taking classes to get his teaching credential, he had to rent out his five-bedroom home, because he couldn't afford the mortgage -- he, his wife and five children lived in a 600-square-foot bungalow for a while.
The principal at Lincoln's high school, knowing Gaschler's background, offered him a teaching job that included coaching the hapless football team. The following spring, however, funding cuts bumped Gaschler out of that job. The school district, eager to keep a good coach, asked him to teach in a fledgling independent-study program, prompting his move into the decrepit double-wide trailer.
Two years later, when a local principal called Gaschler's attention to the new charter-school law, Gaschler quickly wrote up a petition. At the time, the superintendent of Western Placer Unified was eager to experiment; he would open five of the state's first 15 charters in the small school system. The fifth was Horizon. To ease qualms about funding, Gaschler agreed to start with only himself and one other teacher, who were both already funded through independent study anyway. Gaschler didn't budget for a secretary until he had more than 300 students. But with just three years of teaching experience, he'd launched an education and business enterprise that would grow with breathtaking speed and eventually bring Gaschler into direct conflict with state officials.
Ultimately, Western Placer had financial incentive to be supportive, because it received as much as 15 percent of all student revenue Gaschler generated. Until legislation limited such percentage deals, in 1999, they were common across the state -- with the take of the sponsoring district as high as 50 percent. To critics, some charters began to look like moneymaking ventures rather than educational ones. And what kind of oversight would a school district provide for a charter school that was raining revenue?
SUPERINTENDENT JEFF BAUER HAD WATCHED THE success of Horizon -- and the financial rewards for the Western Placer district in which it was based -- with interest. In his Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, budget cuts had eliminated art and music programs and shrunk the custodial staff. And after the district tore down an old high school gym and cafeteria, state construction funds ran dry before the replacement project was complete. So the cafeteria was never rebuilt, and the gym has no locker rooms, which means that students have to walk a block -- sometimes through the snow -- to change in and out of exercise gear.