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A Choice Experiment

ABOUT THE SERIES:

California‘s charter schools have won the unqualified and often uncritical endorsement of forces all across the political spectrum. The Weekly’s three-part series examines this new wave of school reform. Articles and letters to the editor can be found at www.laweekly.com.

November 10:

California‘s controversial innovation:

The home-school charter.

Today:

Despite promise, the reality is not equal to the hype.

December 28:

Charter schools: The picture in Los Angeles.

Just imagine the scandal: a California public school that spurns computers, thumbs its nose at heavy-duty phonics for first-graders and fails to emphasize formal reading until the third grade.

What’s more, this school‘s core philosophy dates back to a spiritual, quasi-religious leader who embraced bizarre concepts, some of them blatantly racist.

An ”outrage“ like this would run Page 1, above the fold.

Or so you might think.

A handful of California public schools already resemble this description. But there’s no scandal, because not a single student is forced to attend. All the participating families choose to enroll their children. These schools are Waldorf-style schools, which appeal to many parents for their developmental approach to learning and their emphasis on arts and crafts, music, exploration and creative play. They have entered the public school system the only way they could, as charter schools, which are exempt from many Education Code requirements and are free to students, just like other public schools.

The concept of a ”choice“ school is the defining element of California‘s 8-year-old charter-school experiment. The movement embodies a boggling array of choices. The most obvious is the freedom for parents to select a public school, but there’s also the opportunity for teachers to run their own campus, for a school district to skirt English-only laws, or for an entrepreneur to set out his own schoolhouse shingle -- whether the goal be to change the world or nab a quick buck. It works this way: The local, county or state school board grants a charter that allows a new or existing school to govern itself and exempts that school from many provisions of the Ed Code. In exchange, school operators abide by a contract that sets out the school‘s mission, achievement goals and method of operation.

The charter-school phenomenon is a revolution of educational anarchy, or libertarianism, if you will, tied together by the rhetoric of reform and high standards. Supporters contend that charters will compel regular schools to improve or perish, applying a healthy dose of competitive American capitalism to a lethargic, failing, government-run bureaucracy.

This is a heady time for charter schools in California, one of the first states to allow them. This state has the second-most charters in the nation, as well as those with the largest enrollment; every month, five to 10 new schools are registered with the state. And with last month’s passage of Proposition 39, charter schools will, for the first time, be eligible for school-construction bonds. Lack of money for school sites has been a major stumbling block.

And last week, for the first time, the state Board of Education approved a charter petition that had been denied by both a local school and county education officials. In fact, the state board approved two such charters, one of which, the Oakland Military Academy, is a pet project of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and was personally endorsed by Governor Gray Davis.

California‘s charter schools enter this era of opportunity with ideologically based testimonials, but little actual evidence that they’ve significantly improved the state‘s system of schools. Frankly, it’s difficult to derive meaning from this anarchic shadow school system.

A few things are clear. So far, charter schools have brought to California a scattershot of educational options that have undeniably benefited certain clienteles in certain places. Overall, about 103,000 students, or 1.7 percent of California‘s 6 million students, are enrolled in charters. Sometimes, the actual differences between charter schools and traditional ones are only superficial, or not related to charter-school status. And in some instances, different has not meant better.

Moreover, the accountability aspect has not caught up with the choice paradigm. Rhetoric aside, charter schools have not collectively embraced a capitalist perform-or-die mantra. The essential construct remains choice uber alles. Whether the movement ultimately results in anything else of lasting importance is up for grabs. And while school choice itself is a fine thing for those families with access to it, research suggests that taxpayer-financed, free-market schooling can have downsides -- if, for example, newly hatched schools squander or misuse state funds, or if these choices are distributed unequally, or if one family’s choice comes at the expense of another family‘s opportunity for a quality education.

Which is to say, the truth about charter schools is less than advertised; for now, at least, the reality has not caught up with the hype.

The departure from the norm is real enough at a Waldorf-style school, though not to everyone’s liking. Even as charters, Waldorf schools have not gone unchallenged. An anti-Waldorf organization in the Bay Area is suing a Northern California school district on the grounds that Waldorf teachings -- based on the philosophy of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861--1925) -- are inherently religious in nature, and thus in violation of the state‘s ban on sectarian indoctrination in public schools.

Steiner called his beliefs anthroposophy, which, according to the dictionary, is a religious system centering on human development that incorporates theories of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation. Like a New Age religion, Steiner’s anthroposophy blends Christ and Buddha, and merges scientific inquiry with Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. There also happens to be an element of racism in some of Steiner‘s works. He wrote against intermarriage between races and contended, for example, that ”blond hair actually bestows intelligence“ and ”the more the fair individuals die out the more will the instinctive wisdom of humans vanish.“

Operators of Waldorf-style schools insist that they use only the best of Steiner’s ideas on child development, while specifically avoiding sectarian teaching, not to mention outmoded notions of blond superiority. For that matter, the term ”Waldorf-style“ means different things at different campuses.

Even accepting such disclaimers, however, the Waldorf philosophy clearly moves counter to mainstream school reform in California, which emphasizes phonics, computers and hardcore academics in the early grades. A strict Waldorf school would use no textbooks through the fifth grade. The use of computers is discouraged, because using a computer is regarded as an isolating activity. In fact, no plastics of any sort are permitted in Waldorf primary classrooms.

The Yuba River Charter School, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Sacramento, sits in the epicenter of the charter movement, where there are more charters per student than in any other region in the state. Yuba River‘s friendly Waldorf classrooms retain an aspect of play and exploration that students elsewhere leave regretfully behind in kindergarten. Third-graders still have sandboxes in the classroom and a kid-size kitchen. And students keep the same teacher for eight years, building a familylike relationship. Every child learns to play musical instruments, the recorder in the third grade and the violin in the sixth grade.

At first blush, the experience seems a refreshing antidote to the constant drumbeat of ever-more-rigorous academics for young children. During my visit, I had to remind myself that experts who know more about education than I have decided that Waldorf is all wrong; that it’s more ”effective“ to go for highly structured, no-nonsense, formal studies.

Conclusive data that would settle the debate is wanting. Yet at the Yuba River school, even the act of citing test scores would seem like justifying Mozart‘s piano lessons on the grounds that they develop coordination for adjusting widgets on an assembly line. Something other than the unmitigated push for success on multiple-choice exams is at work here.

The Yuba River Waldorf school is one of four charters assembled at the Bittney Springs complex, a ’70s-era business park near Nevada City, in Northern California‘s Gold Rush country. The schools include the Waldorf operation as well as a school of the arts, a school for the disabled and a small high school.

The mastermind is 56-year-old Superintendent Dave Taylor, who, with his tie and insurance-company-exec haircut, doesn’t look like an education radical. But he comes pretty close.

For his charters, Taylor has leased about 60 percent of Bittney Springs, which once was corporate headquarters for an electronics firm, but had lain largely dormant for several years.

In this case, the ”park“ part of ”business park“ is no euphemism. The four-building, 40,000-square-foot campus stretches across 15 wooded, gently rolling, pine-needle-strewn hills. There are no athletic fields, but there are man-made creeks and vistas of fish ponds and mountains.

”You can‘t duplicate this,“ said Taylor during a recent visit as he appreciated the view. ”No way.“

All told, Taylor has started 13 charters, all but two outside the territorial jurisdiction of his tiny Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which has but 698 students from within his school-district boundaries. Six of the schools use Waldorf methods. (Four other state charter schools also list themselves as using Waldorf methods.)

High school charter parent Tiana Trumbo noted that the 83 11th-grade students have access to three foreign languages, with class sizes of eight to 13 students. ”There is the potential to really learn, to not get lost in the shuffle. If a student is not doing well, they’re staying right on top of it.“

But Trumbo, who volunteers at the school, also understands that the school‘s survival is anything but assured, because of the constant need to recruit. Other school districts, she said, have been refusing to provide student names or contact information for fear of losing students (and the state funds that come with them). ”This is competition for the other schools,“ she said.

This notion of charter schools inducing competition is the ideological pedestal on which advocates predicate their hope for reform. Nevada County, the location of Bittney Springs, is home to 21 charter schools in a county with a total of only 13,000 students.

Nevada County had comparatively high test scores both before and after the influx of charter schools. But charters have pushed its traditional schools to be better, said Nevada County schools Superintendent Terence K. McAteer. ”Competition is a good thing,“ he said. ”And what they’ve done for Nevada County is that you no longer live solely in your school district. You have a myriad of choices. And our student population is declining, so the competition for those students is profound.“

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.

In the end, though, what‘s so bad about unfettered choice, even if that were to be the primary accomplishment of charter schools? Maybe nothing, but the book When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale, about school choice in New Zealand, raises concerns. In it, former New York Times reporter Edward B. Fiske and Duke University professor Helen F. Ladd build on other scholars’ research to recount what happened when the government abolished neighborhood enrollment zones, forcing all schools to compete for students.

Many parents, especially those with low incomes, were not able to exercise ”choice,“ because few alternatives existed where they lived, or because they could not afford transportation, student fees and other costs associated with attending a popular school. Over time, enrollment patterns became increasingly stratified along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Minority students -- mostly Maoris and Pacific Islanders -- became increasingly concentrated in certain schools, as did problem students who could not meet admission criteria established by the ”desirable“ schools. In short, said the authors, some schools were thrown into a downward spiral, while others ”excelled“ thanks in large part to an influx of educated, prosperous families.

In this country, by contrast, charter supporters point with pride to the significant numbers of minority students in U.S. charter schools. But that hardly settles the issue of potential re-segregation. A detailed study of individual charter schools in Arizona, published last year in the Education Policy Analysis Archives, looked beyond simply totaling up the number of minorities enrolled in charters. Researchers found that minority students were clustered in a handful of charters near where they lived. Other charter schools had a much higher percentage of white students than neighborhood schools. These charters seemed to be exacerbating the ethnic separation of students, even in multiethnic neighborhoods. Other studies of choice schools in the U.S. and Great Britain have reached similar conclusions.

Closer to home, in San Diego, the student population at the Tubman Waldorf-style school, though relatively diverse, is whiter, more prosperous and less transient than both the district as a whole and neighborhood schools it was once compared to. The new Explorer charter school in gentrified La Jolla is 92 percent Anglo. The urban Sojourner Truth Learning Academy is 96 percent African-American.

In some instances, to be fair, charter schools encourage Anglo or prosperous families to return to a public school, and their personal stake in public education benefits the entire school system. And many charter operators actively recruit a diverse student population. Moreover, a well-run, all-minority charter school would clearly be preferable to a dismal traditional school.

Still, the evolving choice system runs a tangible risk of segregation, and also for engendering a two-tiered system. In this nightmare scenario, prosperous families would have access to charters with creative curricula, arts education, college prep and experienced teachers, while impoverished minority neighborhoods would have to settle for last-chance or vocational schools, or for-profit charters that cut costs with inexperienced teachers using idiot-proof canned curricula. That is just the sort of dispiriting school described by writer Elizabeth Kolbert in her October 9 New Yorker profile of the for-profit Advantage Schools.

In addition, a 1998 study raised concerns over the treatment of disabled students a at for-profit charter schools in Massachusetts. Researchers concluded that the schools ”often ignore special-education law and treat students with more complicated disabilities as financial liabilities“ -- even while promotional materials fairly glowed with nondiscrimination statements and welcoming language.

More specifically, researchers Nancy J. Zollers and Arun K. Ramanathan wrote that these schools did a ”decent job“ with mildly disabled students. But with other disabled students, they ”engaged in a pattern of disregard and often blatant hostility toward students with more complicated behavioral and cognitive disabilities.“

Among the practices they documented: Schools would re-classify moderately disabled students as severely disabled so administrators could escape a legal obligation to serve these students. Other disabled students were ”counseled out,“ that is, the charter school advised parents that traditional public schools would be a better place for their children. The researchers even recorded instances of disabled students being harshly and inappropriately disciplined, in an apparent attempt to encourage their departure.

Such tactics were notably less apparent in that state‘s not-for-profit charters. And some charters have done excellent work with disabled students, even specializing in programs to help them.

For-profit operators have generally avoided California, because schools receive so much less funding here than in many other states. (Some New York school systems, for example, spend $8,500 per student per year compared to about $4,300 per student that is available to California charter schools.)

Even so, there’s anecdotal evidence that the ”counseling out“ process also has occurred here. The accusers include Superintendent Richard Graey of the Mattole Unified School District. During the 1998-99 school year, Graey‘s district operated a charter-school affiliate of the one2one California Learning Foundation, which specialized in computer-assisted home-schooling. ”When I first started with them, they didn’t want to have special-education kids in the school,“ said Graey. ”I said, ‘You can’t do that.‘ They just didn’t know what the law said.“

One2one California has since dissolved, said A. James Jones, the CEO of the one2one Learning Foundation, the Dallas-based nonprofit that spawned one2one California and also operates a charter school in Texas. On behalf of the Dallas organization, said Jones, he has personally assumed responsibility for eight California charter-school affiliates.

”I came to California to restructure our schools here to the model that I have in Texas,“ he said. ”Some of what I saw occurring here was not standard operating procedure.“ He added that he could not comment directly on complaints because of pending litigation over one2one‘s alleged practices.

In the end, charter schools will prove a costly and distracting sideshow if their main accomplishment is to create publicly funded boutique campuses that serve families who could have paid for their choices through private schools. The true litmus test of charters’ worth will be in places like inner-city Los Angeles.

In many respects, charters are proto-voucher schools. As in a voucher system, the families take their children‘s public funding to a school of their choice. Unlike in proposed voucher systems, a charter school cannot charge the parents extra or promote a religion. But conservative supporters clearly see charter schools as paving the way for a voucher-system-to-come by hooking middle-class voters -- and urban residents disgusted with local schools -- on the concept of choice, then taking it one step further. The idea of a market-based school-choice system dates back at least to the 1950s, when it was promulgated in the early work of conservative economist Milton Friedman, who still sounds the clarion call for both charters and vouchers in his eponymous newsletter.

It’s ironic then that the big federal push for charter schools has come under President Bill Clinton, an anti-voucher Democrat, and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. At last week‘s charter-school convention in Washington, Riley called charters ”an answer to those . . . who would undermine our public schools with vouchers.“ Riley characterized vouchers as ”giving fool’s gold to a handful of students . . . even though they shift resources away from a vast majority of students.“ He also took the occasion to announce proposed federal funding this year of $190 million for charter schools, the highest level ever.

For better or worse, the charter-school genie won‘t be returning to the bottle. Both supporters and critics acknowledge that charter schools are popular among families that choose them. This is true in New Zealand, where negative outcomes have been documented, and it’s true here. Accordingly, it‘s hard to find a politician who hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon.

”We‘ve learned that parental choice is a very powerful vehicle in this state,“ said Nevada County schools Superintendent McAteer. ”Parental choice is more powerful than test scores, the location of the school, and even the physical look and feel of the school. It has to do with the parent saying, ’I have a choice and I am exercising it.‘“ McAteer paused: ”I’m not going to tell you, however, that charter schools are doing a better job than other public schools.“


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