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SCV Voices: Schools should be here to serve all students

Posted: October 19, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 19, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Editor’s note: Part 2 of a two-part column examining charter schools’ obligations under state law.

By James Gibson

Superintendent of Castaic Union School District

Robert Nolet

Superintendent of Sulphur Springs School District

Marc Winger

Superintendent of Newhall School District

Charter schools in the Santa Clarita Valley recruit and siphon off students who are predestined by social standing and parent education levels to achieve, and they ignore the low achievers — the very students the law was designed to serve. These charter schools contribute to segregation by race and social class.

Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration and one-time charter proponent, calls this subtle recruitment “creaming” of the students most likely to be academically successful. In her book “Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch expresses a 180-degree change in her opinions of charters because of this reality.

How does this subtle segregation and exclusion happen? A February 2011 donation appeal letter to parents from the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences is telling.

While referencing an expected $2,500-per-student fundraising goal, it states, “It allows us to provide a private school education in a tuition-free, public school setting.”

And here’s a direct quote from a posting on the school’s website entitled “Annual Giving Campaign 2011-12 FAQs”: “Therefore we expect AEA families to donate $2,500 per child to help make (up) the difference we do not receive from the government.”

This letter and FAQ section have since been pulled from the school’s website because the William S. Hart Union High School District imposed a condition of renewal that required the school to discontinue the practice of soliciting donations in this way.

Perhaps the operators of the charter also realized how damaging it was to be so honest about their intent.

We know charter proponents now claim that the 2011 donation documents no longer apply, and any donations are purely voluntary and only suggested. They will also say that all schools, via PTAs or foundations, ask parents for money. That statement is true.

We reference this letter and website posting as evidence of a mindset and a subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) sent message — parental donations to charter schools are expected. We have heard this from parents. We read it for ourselves.

Most importantly, the charter budgets we have reviewed in the past depend on donations. That leads to more than the “ask” of a traditional PTA or foundation, whose budgets are not integrated into the actual operation of our schools.

Charter schools are public schools. The law is not intended to create private schools with public funds. “Private school education” is code for avoiding diversity and the instructional challenges faced by today’s public schools.

The exclusion of children of color, those who live in poverty and low achievers is no surprise. Contributing to a stated per-student fundraising goal is not possible for the students of the SCV who participate in the free/reduced lunch program, and the school’s expectation has a chilling effect on anyone hoping to enroll if they do not have the means to meet the school’s fund raising expectations.

Ask yourself if students in the poorer sections of our valley can get to a charter school in a remote commercial/industrial area of the SCV, where the existing charter schools are located.

Has there been meaningful outreach from our current charters to this population? Have the local charters arranged for bus service to insure that they reach out to Spanish-speaking English-language-learners and poor students who are limited by lack of transportation?

We think you can guess the answer.

Existing and prospective charters should be held accountable to adequately address the elements of the petition and reflect the intent of the law. They should not be allowed to establish exclusionary, boutique schools.

Once established, they like to point to their achievement levels as proof of their excellence. But are they simply “creaming” high achievers?

This is not an indictment of their instructional methods or their learning environments. Nor is this an indictment of the parents who choose a charter school for one reason or another.

But the charter operators’ self-described unique methods should be focused where the law points them — on their current student body and low-achieving students or those still learning English.

The promise of the public schools in America has always been to provide opportunity for all our students. Public schools have enabled students from all stations in life to contribute to our society and our economy.

Equity and access have been central tenets of this important American institution.

Charter advocates like to argue “choice” and “competition.” We say allow choice and bring on the competition, but insist that it be on a level and fair playing field, compliant with the intent of the law.

Let’s see petitioners propose a charter that would effectively serve all students, including the low-achieving and poor students in east Newhall, Val Verde, or sections of Canyon Country. That is the intent of the charter law.

Then let’s compare the achievement scores of our schools. Given Santa Clarita Valley school districts’ proven ability to meet the needs of all students, we are pretty confident of the results.

School boards must honor the requirements and the intent of the California Charter Schools Act and reject charters that have not served and will not serve the students for whom the law was created. The Saugus Union School District board did just that in its vote on Albert Einstein Academy.



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