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Myers' Musings: The suburban conceit of charter and magnet schools

Posted: February 6, 2010 4:40 p.m.
Updated: February 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Back in the late 1990s when two of our children attended Helmers Elementary School in Valencia’s Northbridge tract, a group of activist parents along with the administration decided the school needed a uniform policy.

A quickly arranged straw poll revealed 80 percent support and the group went ahead with a fashion show of uniform options, most looking strangely like the uniforms for expensive private schools on the west side of Los Angeles.

The school scheduled an actual referendum which, I recall, required a 66 percent “yes” vote with 80 percent responding to adopt the uniform policy.

Now, my Nebraska Bride Nancy normally eschews controversy, but she maintains a stubborn libertarian streak about school uniforms for a variety of reasons. I wrote them up and published them in a column at the time of which she made 300 copies and passed out to parents during the pickup time at school. Today, social network programs would accomplish this task.

The actual vote found the initiative narrowly defeated; a big turnaround from the 80 percent straw poll.

The handout debunked several arguments in favor of school uniforms, primarily nonexistent “studies” that “prove” school uniforms turn primary school children into geniuses with five patents by the age of 10.

But the primary argument revolved around a darker side of suburbia; people wishing to take on the $2,000 per month private-school trappings of the wealthier enclaves of Southern California by spending a few hundred dollars per year on single-purpose uniforms.

We see these indicators of “wanna-be” wealth and status in Southern California suburbs, and not just Santa Clarita. Consider the “baby” Mercedes-Benz cars that clog the streets and freeways in certain parts of Orange County, driven on unsustainable leases.

Also consider “elite” sports teams that dominate local and regional competitions until they run into the “real deal.”

The liquidity bubble fueled by rising home prices fueled a private education boom, including some growth in private schools in the SCV while people still felt flush.

Now the financial hangover requires most in Santa Clarita to come to terms with the fact that $1,000 to $2,000 per month for a private K-12 school, along with additional high-dollar fund-raising obligations, just will not work until the next asset bubble.

But not to worry. Enter the charter and magnet schools, and the wanna-be can suck on public money to fulfill their elitist dreams.

Until recently charter schools stood on the periphery of public education in the SCV, generally limited to “alternative” schools to provide high school educations to those not functioning well in a comprehensive high school environment.

While I think these institutions do God’s work they receive state per capita funds roughly equal to 70 percent of their supervising public institutions and operate out of store fronts, meeting with students in independent study courses roughly one hour per work.

Simple math reveals the efficacy of this business model.

But enter the “elite” charter school. The SCV International elementary school claims 429 students, including 100 from the Saugus Union School District, that recently closed two “ordinary” elementary schools due to a flattening of enrollment and suddenly excess infrastructure.

For its year ended Dec. 31, 2009, the school took in just over $1 million in public funds, a portion of which constitutes a loss by the Saugus district.

Also, a new group seeks to establish a “language” charter school that will provide instruction in several Semitic and Hellenic languages, but mainly Hebrew five days per week.

While not a “religious” school, the curriculum bears a strange resemblance to the expensive Jewish private schools found south of the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley and on the west side of L.A., but publicly funded.

The public institutions will not take this infringement lying down. Enter the “magnet” school that promises some “elite” education much better than the ordinary plain old elementary school.

The Saugus district promises to open in 2010 the “West Creek ‘Music’ Academy” off Copper Hill Drive in order to convince the parents of 300 to 400 elementary school students to drive miles past the “ordinary” elementary schools to provide a sufficient head count for operation.

One cannot help but wonder if Saugus district board members and administrators thought long and hard about the “music” magnet, or had just watched  a particularly excellent episode of “Glee” the night before.

One thing is for certain: If 500 students don’t show up for class at West Creek in the fall, look for the “West Creek ‘Eternal Life’ Academy” in the spring term.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. “Myers’ Musings” appears Sundays in The Signal.


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