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No Classrooms,
No Teachers,
No Playgrounds,
No Standards 

California’s bizarre charter-school experiment

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
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Page 5 of 9

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.

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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.

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