By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
That‘s not the case in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has a handful of noteworthy charter schools. L.A. Unified would probably be grateful if charter operators could somehow take 100,000 students off its crowded rolls. Across California, the internal improvement efforts of school districts as well as the external, statewide school-reform push are more pressing concerns than charter-school competition.
Nor do charter schools stand out for their much-vaunted accountability factor. The Weekly has determined that about two dozen California charters have shut down -- which enthusiasts interpret as accountability at work -- but poor academic performance drove none of the documented closures. At least, no one could cite a single such instance in interviews with the Weekly, not specialists with the state’s charter-school unit nor even David Patterson, the well-informed lobbyist for the California Network of Educational Charters (CANEC).
To date, California charter-school failures have resulted because of gross mismanagement, internal conflict or improprieties, or because the charter lacked sufficient start-up money. These shutdowns sometimes disrupted the education of hundreds of students and cost the state millions of dollars. As for the 300 functioning charter schools, their range of test scores is a near mirror image of noncharters. An in-depth examination of this data is not available.
”Up till now, we have allowed existing charter schools to be as good as they wanted to be or as bad as they wanted to be,“ said Missouri state Senator Steve Stoll, a charter-school supporter, at last week‘s national charter-school conference in Washington, D.C.
Which is not to say that charter schools are immune from all pressure to perform. That’s not possible in a state where test scores have become the sine qua non of judging schools. In the mid-1990s, the Waldorf-style Harriet Tubman Village Charter in San Diego adopted a more traditional academic program after its test scores sagged embarrassingly behind those of other district schools. Today, test scores at Tubman, which still incorporates some Waldorf methods, rank in the top echelon of similar schools, according to state data.
The truth is that accountability systems are a weak link for all public schools -- charter or otherwise. Only in the last year or two has the state‘s fledgling system for judging schools begun the process of providing financial rewards to the high fliers and extra help and even threatened ”punishment“ for failing schools. Such accountability systems are in their infancy and still fraught with reliability problems.
Even so, some charter schools are well worth emulating -- although nearly all of their outstanding practices also can be found at ”regular“ public schools. Among the commendable approaches: A few charters have experimented with adopting an Individual Education Plan for every student. Usually, these plans of study are reserved only for disabled students, to fulfill a federal requirement.
The Sacramento-area Natomas Charter School, which specializes in the arts, is altering customary practice by using dance teachers from professional studios for its dance classes. That may not sound revolutionary, but in the traditional setup, dance would be taught by a state-certified physical-education instructor, who is often thoroughly unqualified to teach dance.
Natomas also is notable in that it was started by two teachers, Charlie Leo and Ting Sun, who essentially leapfrogged from teaching to managing a school, sidestepping a hierarchical system that can needlessly prolong an educator’s progress from teacher to administrator while also weeding out the most able leaders.
O‘Farrell Community School in San Diego divided its middle school enrollment into 250-student families, each of which is essentially administered by the educators who also are doing the teaching. O’Farrell‘s innovations were developed prior to becoming a charter. It went charter to preserve its structure and independence, to avoid any disruption from being swept up in the larger school district’s reform plan, or by whatever successive wave of reform would then follow in its wake.
Elsewhere in San Diego County, the South Bay Union School District formed a charter school to bypass Proposition 227, the ballot initiative that replaced bilingual education with English immersion. To save its bilingual program, the school district classified its native-language classes at several campuses as a charter. Thus, the bilingual-ed program became, in effect, a new school that wasn‘t really a school at all except on paper. This ”school“ isn’t even on the district Web site‘s list of schools. The students remained in the same classes in the same place they had always been.
Perhaps the most innovative formula -- and the easiest for an unscrupulous operator to abuse -- was developed by Randy Gaschler, who founded Horizon Instructional Systems. As noted in the Weekly’s previous story on charters, Gaschler‘s school caters to home-schoolers and other ”independent study“ students. Such schools receive the same level of funding for students as other schools, even though there’s no campus to maintain, no busing and no school staff. Gaschler points out that he reinvests the leftover money in students, by loaning them home computers, for example, and providing Internet access. But nothing enforces good citizenship; a charter operator focused on the bottom line could simply pocket the freed funds.