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No Classrooms,
No Teachers,
No Playgrounds,
No Standards 

California’s bizarre charter-school experiment

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
Comments
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."

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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.

Like past incarnations of reform, charter schools will, over time, manifest positive and negative results. But after eight years of charter schools in California, one thing is clear: To date, they have not proved to be the panacea for a troubled education system. California's charter schools cannot, for example, claim greater success than traditional schools in raising student test scores. Nor have traditional schools been scared straight as a result of the competition. For the most part, the education establishment has ignored charters, except when a scandal arises that spurs new calls to rein them in. But charters have proved popular with the families that choose to use them, underscoring that the growing popularity of school choice trumps even test scores or other tangible proofs of success.

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.

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 mini­school 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.

Bauer saw Horizon's booming business and wanted a piece of the action for his own district, so he brought in the one2one Learning Foundation, an organization that began in the Southwest, then moved into California to sell software and manage a charter school. The school, which was named the Sierra Summit Academy, quickly became the brain center for an enrollment as high as 2,700 students throughout the state, dwarfing the parent school district, which has about 825 students. The school's specialty has been long-distance learning via computer, particularly for home-schoolers. For attendance accounting and advisement, the school uses a "facilitator" with a ã teaching credential to make home visits, very much like the Horizon model.

Like Horizon, the Sierra Summit Academy itself has no actual school building. The education program for several thousand students has been coordinated out of a 19-by-29-foot wood-sided building in Sierra City, population 225, a Gold Country town that never quite reached critical mass. A sign advises slow driving because "children and dogs play in the street." Firewood sits stacked on the porch of the library. Nearby, the Buckhorn restaurant offers a "full-course dinner" on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 9 p.m. The North Yuba River gurgles in the background.

Even before snow season, Sierra City isn't easy to get to, but then, the school district originally barred its own students from attending. Sierra Summit was not a local school site, but rather an ATM. Fifteen percent of all the charter's revenue would go to Bauer's school district.

And Sierra-Plumas was well on its way to rosier times. Its budget ballooned from $5 million to more than $12 million, according to Bauer. Even though most of the gain went to one2one, Sierra-Plumas used its 15 percent of the $7 million increase to restore art and music programs, rehire custodians and launch plans for a $9 million construction program.

One2one also was flying high with Sierra Summit as well as two other charters it managed in other remote school systems. One2one reported revenue of about $13.3 million and assets of $4.1 million for the year ending June 30, 1999, the latest period for which state records are available. No public records detail exactly how the money was spent or what percentage of it actually went into direct services for students.

THE STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT IS NOT TO BE directly involved in the oversight of charter schools -- state legislators have made that clear -- but the rapid growth of Horizon and Sierra Summit invited scrutiny.

And when they looked, state education officials noticed that, in contrast to the goodies that Horizon offered students, regular classrooms in Western Placer Unified had to get by with a materials budget of about $80 per student, and families got no say in how that money would be spent.

In response, the Education Department first specified that Horizon only provide services that were potentially available to other students in the school district. Gaschler reluctantly cut out horseback riding, field trips and the small special-subject classes. Then, in February 1995, the state took a harder position. If Horizon provided computers to 10 students, the sponsoring school district would have to make home computers available to 30 students, because at that time, the district's enrollment was three times the size of Horizon's.

This directive was simply beyond the financial reach of Western Placer. Even worse for Horizon, the state applied this new condition retroactively -- to enrollment money already received and spent. The school system would be bankrupt if it had to return already-spent state money that had been used "inappropriately." The state then offered a deal that appeared to seal Horizon's fate: Shut down Horizon, and the state would not demand its money back. Under this tremendous pressure, the school district revoked Horizon's charter in March 1995.

But Gaschler was not without allies, including charter-school-friendly Republican lawmakers and a 500-strong army of parents who marched in protest to Sacramento. Gaschler won a stay of execution, which enabled his supporters to challenge the state's position that all Western Placer students had to receive equal resources.

Of course, uneven resources -- and unequal schools -- can be found all over the state. Since when did schools in Compton compare to those in Beverly Hills or San Marino? Citing various legal justifications, the state Attorney General's Office, headed by conservative Republican Dan Lungren, sided with Horizon in August 1995. The local school board restored Gaschler's charter, and he remained in business.

State officials, meanwhile, chastened by the experience, seemed reluctant to take on another charter school absent extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, future complaints were forwarded to the sponsoring district, which did not satisfy Nevada County Superintendent McAteer. McAteer has characterized himself as a proponent of site-based charter schools, but didn't like what he saw at Sierra Summit Academy, which he rechristened the "dialing for dollars" charter school in a letter to the state Education Department.

McAteer said it's no accident that one2one and the Sierra-Plumas school district found each other. For one2one, the isolated school district assured a lower level of outside scrutiny. And the added income from a charter school makes a huge difference in such a small school district, which would be loath to kill its cash cow. In addition, one2one got more money per student than it would have in many other school systems, because Sierra-Plumas has to provide an extensive transportation system across mountain roads for a small number of students. One2one's students got the same per-pupil funding, even though its students got to school by logging on. (In response to this issue, the state Legislature recently leveled out all charter-school funding.)

"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."

Carroll clearly does not wish to antagonize state officials. After all, he's still in business, having moved on to greener pastures elsewhere in the state. Even while still affiliated with Sierra Summit, he inked management agreements with two other charters in far-flung school districts. And in June 1998, he registered a new corporate entity called the Charter School Resource Alliance.

On his own, Bauer has since rebuilt Sierra Summit to 400 students, which is as high as he's been able to push ã enrollment given the state's decision to limit his recruiting to adjacent counties.

In a phone-message response to an interview request, Carroll asked for a "short paragraph on what the motivation of your article is and the questions you'd like answered." Carroll did not immediately respond to a two-page letter outlining interview topics in detail, but left another voice mail after his answering machine fielded follow-up calls. "Your subsequent voice mail to me today is consistent with my experience with the press," he said. "You've related facts regarding legal issues that are not correct. And I don't know your sources but I would suggest that you update your information to the truth. From your comments it's apparent that you're not interested in writing an article that positively supports the excellent work our teachers are doing and focusing on the resources committed to the children, so I will respectfully decline to participate in your article. Thank you."

In 1999, Bay Area newspapers reported that one2one enrolled Muslim students whose meeting place was an Islamic school where the students also studied Islam and paid tuition. Public schools, including charters, cannot charge tuition nor permit the teaching of religion. One2one told reporters that students were studying religion only after charter-school hours, but eventually stopped meeting at the mosque "to avoid confusion."

Ten charter schools, totaling well above 5,000 students, signed up with Carroll's company, according to an internal company document provided to the Weekly, though it's not clear how far his management services extend for these affiliates.

Several of these schools were eager to be included in an article on charter schools, including the Gorman Learning Center, headquartered in the northwest corner of Los Angeles County. "I suggest you consider how well we did on the state testing and weight that alongside the fact that those that tested higher than us were charters that only serve wealthy neighborhoods (Pacific Palisades) etc., while we serve many at-risk poor kids that have run out of options," wrote program director Waldo Burford in an e-mail. "On balance, we do far above state and county averages and still carry a large population and a full diversity of students."

Burford estimates his enrollment at 1,200 students, with 900 home-schoolers and 300 distance learners. Any student in Los Angeles County can enroll in his school.

He added: "We are under one2one learning in Dallas, Texas. They are in four states and because of their size, have some big-time technical support [for] our Web pages and provide automated ordering of our curriculum support materials."

Through records in Texas and New Mexico, the Weekly confirmed that one2one is registered as a nonprofit in those states. In addition, one2one has had a contract with an entity called the one2one Services Corporation, which was paid $500 per student per year of enrollment for "various online and communications services, as well as curriculum and accounting support," according to the company's own audit report. The fee totaled about $1.9 million for the '98-'99 school year.

In November 1998, one2one withdrew its application for a home-school-style charter in Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown Area School District. After being confronted with numerous concerns, a one2one executive wrote, "It is apparent that we will need additional time to adequately inform the community about the goals and mission of the proposed charter school." According to a school-district official, one2one never returned.

Although Carroll did not consent to an interview for this story, he responded in 1998 to a Weekly request for general information about Sierra Summit by providing the summary of "an informal survey . . . of nearly 200 parents," which offered that "Nearly 70 percent of parents rated their experience at the one2one charter schools as better than their experience with traditional schools."

He added in an attached note: "As a manager of public charter schools we strive to maintain the highest standards in management and accountability for our clients. We are a full-service management organization that performs complete school management, including staffing, payroll, student material supplies, online curriculum and reporting systems and Web site development and support."

The state is currently auditing a one2one school, according to sources in both the state Education Department and the state Controller's Office.

One2one also is fending off a former client school district, which is threatening litigation to retrieve student-attendance money it says was improperly claimed by one2one. This school system, the Mattole Unified School District, is even smaller than Sierra-Plumas, with 150 students spread across 225 square miles of the rugged Northern California coast.

The Mattole Valley Charter School started with about 100 students in September 1998. But by June 1999, one2one had built enrollment to 1,700 students from across the state.

"With our contract, we took 10 percent," said Mattole Superintendent Richard Graey. "They got 90 percent, and they could do whatever they wanted with the 90 percent. Charter schools really have a good purpose and a good niche, but there is so much room for fiscal irresponsibility.

"I don't think they really tried to cheat people," he added. "But they went into this without expertise, and they wanted to make the money. When I first started with them, they didn't want to have special-education kids in the school. I said, 'You can't do that. It's illegal not to serve disabled kids.' They just didn't know what the law said."

When new regulations confined enrollment to contiguous counties, Mattole, like Sierra Summit, was a limited business opportunity for one2one, which severed ties with Mattole. Graey was left with only 82 charter students, though he has since rebuilt enrollment to 500. His new partner is Randy Gaschler.

"The difference was night to day," said Graey. "One2one had five people doing everything. They didn't hire enough people to do the job. We went to Lincoln, and we could see 50 to 60 people that Randy had working. You know where the money is going, where the service is being provided. It was a breath of fresh air. It's what we thought we were getting into previously."

GASCHLER, WHO ONCE EVOKED SUSPIcion and disdain in state officials, has seen his image evolve into that of likable ã maverick. But his operation is hardly immune from complaints. Former Horizon parent Linda Hogge quit the school in frustration over the slow arrival of instructional materials and an unsatisfactory education specialist. "All she did was record the attendance, and boom, she was gone. My understanding was that she would meet with us once a month, with one hour for each child. I have two kids, and we met for maybe 45 minutes total.

"There was no real accountability," added Hogge. "All she took notes on was what I told her. She didn't see the kids' work. The only record she has is what I told her from my lesson plans. And there was no feedback, nothing like, 'This looks good' or 'You're a little short in this area, and here is an idea of things you can try.'"

Hogge conceded that her experience may not be typical, and noted that Gaschler personally took her call when she complained. But she also sensed a troubling ethos among the school's parents.

"At an open house, a parent commented to me that the state's guidelines were just the state's political idea of what we should be learning. Well, I've looked at the guidelines on my own. If every child was able to have a taste of all those things, they'd be well-rounded and well-educated. Another parent said she just wanted her children to study the things they're interested in. I think that's a crime. Kids don't always know what they're going to be interested in until they're exposed to many things.

"And my first education specialist said I would find out that home school is much more laid-back than traditional school. I said, 'What do you mean by that?' I want my kids educated. My intention was to give them not just a good education but a great education."

Gaschler doesn't dodge these challenges. Part of the envelope he is pushing is that of parental choice. If parents want an untraditional curriculum or ungraded progress reports, he's prepared to authorize that. He'll also respect parents' concerns for privacy if they don't want certain academic or personal information forwarded to other schools, a practice other schools have complained about. Gaschler insisted that he keeps more records on students than the typical school district -- he has to, he said, because his attendance claim is based on work accomplished and not seat time. If need be, he said, bring on the auditors.

El Dorado County Superintendent Vicki Barber, a tireless Horizon critic, said she can cite example after example of students who got good grades for virtually no work and who learned little during their time in Horizon. Gaschler responded with counterexamples, including the Roundtree family, which graduated two sons from high school early under Horizon. The older son has gone on to excel both at junior college and in the engineering program at Cal State Sacramento. Parent Anne Roundtree pleaded guilty to preferring methods that some educators would consider lax. She disliked giving her six children tests, for example, or formal grades.

"I found out they learn more when they're happy and follow their interests," said Roundtree, adding, "I felt fully qualified to teach them, because I'm their mother, and I love them more than anyone ever could. And I know their needs and their style of learning."

CHARTER SCHOOLS HAVE ENCOUNtered steady resistance from the educational bureaucracy, including teacher unions and numerous district officials. And charter operators complain that they've had to engage a constant battle against legislative rear-guard actions that would either put them out of business or re-regulate their schools to the point that charter schools would differ little from regular ones.

On the other hand, the state Education Department has engaged in little actual oversight. To do otherwise would require considerably more resources than bureaucrats have allotted, as well as a demonstration of political will that is not forthcoming.

"Nobody wants to take on charter schools -- not state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, not the Legislature, not the Democrats, not the Republicans," said Nevada County Schools Superintendent McAteer. "And the reason for that is simple. Charter schools are still in the darling stage. The honeymoon is still on. Everybody loves them. So when you point out some illegal actions, they say, 'Let's close our eyes. Maybe they'll go away.'"

Families in Los Angeles will soon be able to render their own verdicts. Gaschler looks close to an agreement for a charter school in Ventura County, which would give him legal access to students throughout Los Angeles County as well. If this doesn't work out, he'll seek another regional venue, because Gaschler sees big things ahead. "There's no way we can possibly serve a fraction of the students who are going to be interested in this down the road," he said. "As many as 40 percent of students in this country are not well-served by the factory approach to education . . . We combine flexibility with individualized learning plans."

But what's really in this for L.A. County and the overriding goal of school reform? How much has the home-school charter helped the main event, if its main accomplishment has been to provide computers, Internet access and other assistance for home-schoolers? How does this model apply to urban L.A., in families where both parents work long hours at low-wage jobs to barely make ends meet? In crowded apartments where children have no place to study and where there's no secure spot for a home computer? In households where neither parent is educated -- or neither parent speaks English?

Gaschler is confident he can adapt the current model or develop a new one. To prove the point, he also set up a charter school that serves students from the California Conservation Corps. The program combines class work with field studies -- no home schooling, in other words. He said he's also begun to expand into modified site-based campuses.

"My goal is somewhat unrealistic," said Gaschler. "I understand that. But I've succeeded in doing things I had no business doing. I'm thinking that now is the prime time to change public education as we know it today. A handful of people changed it to what we know now. Why couldn't it be done again?"

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