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
"One2one hangs a carrot out there: 'Let us pass our dollars through you, and you can have 15 percent, and you don't have to do anything,'" said McAteer. "There were no adequate controls over how students were learning. Look at the percentage of kids who took the STAR test."
According to state data, only 42 percent of Sierra Summit's students took the mandatory state tests in the spring of 1998. In 1999, the number was 49 percent. This year, the figure fell to 22 percent. Even the highest of these numbers is atrocious. The Los Angeles Unified School District tested 86 percent of its students, according to state figures. Sierra Summit's test scores last year hovered around national averages, though it's hard to derive meaning from that, given that the school drew enrollment from a vast geographic area, and that there's no way to compare how its students fared in previous schools. Similar problems hamper the evaluation of other start-up charters.
"Sierra County schools needed a new gym, and it was funded on the backs of these charter-school students," said McAteer.
Such concerns were quickly dismissed by Bauer, who is a free-market absolutist: "It's just like a hamburger stand. If you've got lousy hamburgers, no one will buy them from you. You'll also ruin a hamburger if you make too many rules about how to make the hamburger, like telling people how many pickles they have to put on the hamburger." Which is Bauer's way of saying that if he built it, and people came, then everyone else ought to either take notes or butt out.
Bauer insisted that his charter school has been strictly prime cut, because he invested heavily in curriculum development. "We feel that our program is the best in California. I'd put it up against any program curriculumwise, deliverywise. Parents, students and teachers are very happy with it."
But Bauer and one2one opened themselves to criticism when Bauer's wife took a position with one2one as the Sierra Summit administrator. One2one also hired the wife of one of Bauer's school-board members for clerical duties.
In California, one2one has some notably unhappy customers, including a small group of families that sued the company, some of its charter schools and several affiliated school districts in August.
According to the parents' lawsuit, "One2one's students are forced to participate in independent study at their parents' or guardians' own expense while one2one collects the state funds that were to be spent on the student's education." The suit also accuses one2one of overbilling for the services it does provide: "The software programs one2one uses . . . are all available online at a cost of zero to $9.95 per month, but one2one charges . . . $30 to $100 per month [in state funds] for the same software."
The complaint then recounts a litany of how parents never received promised textbooks or computers, and how they eventually went out-of-pocket for such materials and were never reimbursed. Moreover, the suit describes a company management that was either unwilling or too disorganized to respond quickly to problems. And it describes company "facilitators" who promised regular tutoring and supervision, but showed up only to collect attendance forms for the purpose of claiming state money.
This year, new laws took effect that restricted the operation of "distance-learning" charters to their home county and adjacent counties. Horizon lost 400 Southern California students, but that was nothing compared to the blow sustained by Sierra Summit.
"We went from 2,700 students to 20 students overnight," said Bauer. "It was the death penalty to us. I try to find an innovative way to get money for our schools, and I get squashed."
ALL OF A SUDDEN, SIERRA-PLUMAS WAS OF LITTLE benefit for one2one, because neither Sierra County nor the adjacent counties have large student populations. If it wanted to remain a major player, one2one had to go elsewhere. Besides, increasing state pressure was beginning to bear down on Sierra Summit. That's because Sierra County is one of a handful of small counties for which the state Education Department is the designated auditor. McAteer pointedly reminded state officials that if a scandal emerged from Sierra Summit, particular blame for lax oversight would fall on the state. Last spring, bureaucrats began to organize an audit team that would include both McAteer and El Dorado County School Superintendent Vicki Barber, a noted local critic of both Sierra Summit and Horizon.
Bauer and one2one fought off the audit by agreeing to sever ties, according to McAteer, who added that there was finger pointing in both directions. Bauer denied this and said that he welcomes all audits. He also took care to praise one2one in interviews with the Weekly. One2one granted no interviews, but offered its own spin in a June letter to state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin.
"At this point the Academy staff has documented their desire not to follow the stringent reporting requirements the Foundation feels are necessary to meet Department regulations," wrote Robert L. Carroll, chairman of the one2one California Learning Foundation. "Therefore, with the conclusion of this school year on June 9, 2000, the Foundation will no longer serve as the charter school Management Company for Sierra Summit Academy. While we regret having to make this decision, we do not feel that compromising our standards supports successful education."