by Mary Schofield, Private Consultant
copyright Mary Schofield 1994
reprinted by permission
Many home educators have heard about charter schools. We receive numerous calls from parents who are considering enrolling in a charter school, as well as from home education leaders attempting to field questions from their group members. Most of the callers have received information which was misleading or inaccurate.
Some of the new charter schools are designed specifically for home educators and have been actively soliciting enrollment from existing home schoolers (one recent flyer advertised a $20 bonus for each family you get to enroll.) The following questions and answers have been prepared to give accurate information about charter schools.
What is a charter school?
On September 21, 1992, the Governor signed into law SB 1448, the charter school bill, by Senator Gary Hart. This law allows for up to 100 charter schools to be established in California.
A charter school is a public school covering grades kindergarten through 12th grade which is organized by a group of teachers, community members, parents, or others and sponsored by an existing local public school board or a county board of education. The specific goals and operating procedures for the charter school are spelled out in the agreement between the board and the organizers, but the school is freed from most State statutes and regulations. (1)
Because of the reduced regulations, some public school ISPs have been among those schools which applied for and received charter school status. It is, in fact, the intent of the charter school law to "provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure" to "improve pupil learning" and "encourage the use of different and innovative teaching." (California Education Code § 47601.)
Are charter schools exempt from all laws?
No. Some parents have reportedly been told that enrollment in a charter school frees them from all laws related to public schools, including the prohibition of teaching religious doctrine within courses.
Although charter schools are exempt from most requirements of the Education Code which govern public school districts, charter schools are not exempt from federal laws, regulations and requirements. Plus, charter schools are not exempt from the provisions of the California Constitution.
Must charter schools use only state-approved materials?
No. Charter schools are not limited to using instructional materials which have been approved by the state.
May charter schools use materials which have Christian content?
No. Article IX, Section 8 of the California Constitution states: "No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools; nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted, directly or indirectly, in any of the common schools of this State." (Emphasis added.)
Also, the charter school law itself states "a charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations..." (E.C. § 47605 [d].)
Some parents have been informed by charter school administrators that they may use any textbooks they desire in the charter school program, including ones by Christian publishers such as BJU Press or A Beka. This is not correct.
Although a "friendly" administrator may not personally object to parents' use of Christian materials, school administrators do not have the authority to change the law.
When questioned about this, one charter school administrator said he considers his school to be exempt from the second half (after the semicolon) of Article IX, Section 8 of the California Constitution because his school is not a "common school" since it allows home schooling, an "uncommon" form of instruction.
However, the historical and legal meaning of the word "common" as applied to schools is "Common school: a public elementary school," (2) and "Common Schools: Schools maintained at the public expense and administered by a bureau of the state, district, or municipal government, for the gratuitous education of the children of all citizens without distinction."(3)
Further, the Superintendent of the local school district in which this school is operated stated that not only is the charter school a common school subject to Article IX, Section 8 of the Constitution, but he added that the administrator of the charter school is aware of this. He stated that the charter school administrator is responsible to ensure that the district's funds are not used on materials which include religious doctrine and that this very issue had been clearly discussed at board meetings. The Superintendent described the actions of "some of the new charter school administrators" as being "like turning a kid loose in a candy store. What would you do? There was no control."
The Superintendent says there is no problem in using books published by a company that publishes other religious materials [i.e. A Beka or BJU] as long as there is no doctrinal material in the book. He gives an example of a social studies text... if the book includes Bible quotes, Bible stories or references, or any instruction in Christian beliefs, the book is unacceptable. However, if it is a math book, simply covering 2+2=4, with no verses or Bible stories, it is okay.
The charter school's administrator, on the other hand, tells parents that as long as a social studies book includes the basic social studies topics or arithmetic concepts covered in non-sectarian books, he considers any religious content or Christian perspective to be "supplemental" and, therefore, within his guidelines.
Regardless of what each charter school administrator or parent would like to do, the law seems clear on this issue. Children who attend any public school, including a charter school, may not receive religious training, instruction, or indoctrination in their school program. Because of this, we continue to recommend that Christian parents desiring an education which teaches Christianity and its values should provide for their children's education through a private school which is home-based, campus-based, or a private independent study program (ISP.)
What if religious materials are used merely as a supplement and if the parents purchase them with their own money?
Parents of charter school students, as well as parents of any other public school students, may teach whatever they want on their own time. However, parents cannot lawfully teach religious doctrine as part of the charter school program. This means no funds from the charter school (these are public funds) may be spent for the purchase of materials with Christian or other religious content. No instructional time which is considered as part of the charter school program may be spent teaching religious doctrine, and no credits or attendance time may be awarded for courses which include religious doctrine.
Some have argued that public schools, themselves, are teaching religious doctrine--Secular Humanism. That may be true, but until a court case is argued and won which confirms that Secular Humanism is a religion and is being taught in schools, it will continue to be allowed.
The law allows those who wish their children to be educated in accordance with Christian beliefs to do so--just not at public expense and not within a government-funded program.
Who will control your children's education if they are enrolled in a charter school?
E.C. § 47612 (3)(b) states "A charter school shall be deemed to be under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools for purposes of Section 8 of Article IX of the California Constitution, with regard to the appropriation of public moneys to be apportioned to any charter school..." (emphasis added.) (Section 8 of Article IX of the California Constitution is quoted above.) In other words, in order for charter schools to receive any public funds they must be under the exclusive control of officers of the public school.
Further, E.C. § 47605 (13)(c) states that "charter schools shall meet the statewide performance standards and conduct the pupil assessments required" pursuant to E.C. § 60602.5.(4) This means that not only are charter schools under the exclusive control of public school officials, but charter school students are required to be tested and the results of the tests will be used to determine whether or not the charter school can continue to operate. "A charter may be revoked by the authority that granted the charter under this chapter if the authority finds that the charter school... failed to meet or pursue any of the pupil outcomes identified in the charter petition." (E.C. § 47607 [b]) This hardly sounds like the parents are in charge.
What tests are required of charter school students?
In order to become a charter school, the proposed school must submit a petition which includes "a description of the educational program of the school..." and "the measurable pupil outcomes identified for use by the charter school. 'Pupil outcomes' for the purposes of this part, means the extent to which all pupils of the school demonstrate that they have attained the skills, knowledge, and attitudes specified as goals in the school's educational program." (E.C. §§ 47605  & ) (emphasis added.)
This required measuring of students' attitudes is part of Outcome-Based Education, a politically-correct "system which has chosen to promote a combination humanist/socialist agenda at the expense of a basic academic education."(5) In short, the charter school must specify goals relating to skills, knowledge and attitudes to be attained, and then must find some means to measure whether these goals have been met.
El Dorado County's Charter Community School (which provides for home education) included the following in its petition:
An assessment portfolio for both students and teachers will be developed by the Charter Community School.
Students will meet the state-wide performance standards and the Charter Community School will conduct pupil assessments that include authentic performance-based assessments developed by the California Department of Education pursuant to Section 60602.5, once they are developed for community schools.(6)
Although the charter provides a means of assessment of pupils, there is no definition of exactly what must go into a student's portfolio. Also, the "authentic performance-based assessments" were not yet developed at the beginning of the program. If "assessments" are to be developed, when will the development take place? What happens if your children are enrolled in the program, then the "assessments" are developed, and you do not approve of them?
Consider the following provision from another charter school: "Charter school students will perform and achieve as well as or better than students in traditional California public schools...."(7)
When I spoke to the administrator of this charter school, he said that testing is a key issue right now. He says that since the charter school programs are so new, they have been virtually defining themselves as they go. As the deadline for deciding on each issue comes up, a solution is determined. In the spring of 1994, this charter school must make decisions on how students will be assessed to determine whether the students have "achieved competency" and whether they are performing "as well as or better than" students in public schools.
In January, it had still not been decided which tests will be required of students. However, to compare charter school students with the other public school students in the state, one would assume a similar means of testing would have to be used on both groups. Since the other public schools are now using the OBE-based CLAS test(8), will students in charter schools have to take this test also?
The only thing certain is that parents whose children have been part of the program since its inception must submit their children to evaluation, but in most cases they don't even know yet exactly what means of evaluation will be used.
Many families are attracted to the charter school programs because they are presented as a "legal" way to home school, because the family is offered money, or because the administrators seem so friendly. Parents are signing up without knowing all the details and the administrators are not fully revealing the requirements. Some administrators are just making up guidelines as they go and appear to have a blank check to do so.
I have heard that charter school students do not have to teach the same subjects or days as public schools. If this is true, then why can't parents teach less time on the required academic subjects and cover religious issues on their own time?
Charter schools are not bound to meet number-of-day requirements. However, ADA funding for the charter school will be reduced proportionately if school is actually taught on fewer than 175 calendar days during the year. This means that attendance records will still be required of charter school students, and in order to receive the maximum funding, it is likely that most charter schools will require a minimum of 175 instructional days.
So parents will be expected to teach non-sectarian material for roughly the same amount of time as do the parents of children enrolled in public school ISPs. During all of the time which is counted as "instructional time" for the charter school program, parents must legally teach non-sectarian material.
May charter schools offer money to parents for purchasing educational supplies?
Charter schools may not offer money (neither up-front, nor in reimbursements) to parents unless the same amount of money is offered to all parents of all children in the other public schools in the district. E. C. § 46300.6 states:
The State Department of Education shall not apportion funds to a local education agency for a pupil in the independent study program if that agency has provided any funds or other things of value to the pupil or his or her parent or guardian that the agency does not provide to pupils who attend regular classes or to their parents or guardians.
When the charter school law was passed, charter schools argued that E.C. § 46300.6 did not apply to them since the charter schools were not in existence when § 46300.6 was passed. The legislature responded by passing exactly the same language in another law the next year, after the charter school law was in effect. The Department of Education states that this subsequent legislation applies to charter schools. According to the Department of Education, charter schools which violate this provision will be denied funding.
Charter schools may, of course, offer teaching materials to students, as all public schools do. But according to the Department of Education, charter schools may not offer any items of value to charter school students that are not offered to other children enrolled in public schools in the district.
At least one charter school is attempting to get around this law by allowing parents to turn in a $100 "shopping list" each month for each enrolled child. Rather than giving funds directly to the parent, this administrator maintains that his school is simply purchasing instructional materials at the request of its staff (i.e. the parent/teachers.) The Department of Education has said that only if every public school in a district allows parents to submit a "shopping list" for materials for their child's education, may charter schools also do so.
Parents have reported that they were told by one administrator that although any non-consumable materials purchased with school funds would be the property of the school, if parents merely write their student's name in the front of a textbook, he would consider that book "consumed."
Even if the shopping list strategy was legal, attempting to keep government property by writing your name on it would appear to be unethical.
What happens if a charter school does not follow the law (i.e. if it allows parents to teach religious doctrine, or if it gives funds or "other things of value" to pupils or parents?)
The charter school law states that "a charter may be revoked by the authority that granted the charter under this chapter if the authority finds that the charter school... violated any provision of the law." (E.C. § 47607 [b]) Also, as stated previously, charter schools which are found to be in violation of the law will not receive funding from the State Department of Education.
Parents would do well to read the school's charter before they join. In one of the charters, it is stated that "students may be suspended or expelled from the charter school ... for causing the charter school to be in jeopardy of violation of any provision of law..."(9) In other words, the students are the ones responsible to know the law and see that they are in compliance.
If a charter school is closed down, can't the parents simply join another program or private school?
Yes, but the students are public school students, which means all their school records would likely be kept with the district, making it necessary for parents to transfer their children out of the public school if they want to join a private one. Since the majority of negative contacts for homeschoolers have been with those families who have tried to remove their children from public school, it is safest to avoid any entanglements at all with the public school system.
In addition, the outcome for the families would depend on the violation which caused the closure of the charter school. For example, if parents or students damaged school property or kept textbooks purchased by the school, they would normally have to pay for replacements.
If all these problems exist, how are the charter schools still operating?
Although the charter school law was passed in 1992, the schools which submitted a charter and received approval did not begin operating as charter schools until this 1993-94 school year. Schools and districts are audited by the Department of Education, but it will take some time before all programs and expenses are audited. One charter school administrator seems to be banking on this gap of time, since he has told enrolled families that he will continue to operate his program as he likes until he is shut down.
One practical problem with this attitude (aside from the ethical problems) is that if a program is closed, families and students often suffer. The recent closure of the Bennett Valley ISP has had parents so up in arms that they have been threatening to sue the State Department of Education. The parents were apparently told by their district that the ISP was being run in accordance with state law. When funding to the district was denied, the program was closed. (Bennett Valley was one of the ISPs offering funds to home school parents.)
More recently, the Franklin-McKinley ISP has been denied funding by the State Department of Education. Furious parents have called demanding that the program continue. The parents could not understand why the program is just now being denied funding, when it has been operating several years. On closer inspection, it was found that the program has changed the way it has handled its direct funding to parents a number of times.
They started with a flat payment to families, then switched to reimbursement of receipted expenditures, and finally adopted the current policy of having the parents turn in a purchase order so the school can pay the bookseller directly for the parents' choice of materials. Because each of these methods was rejected, the program has now been denied funding from the state for all those practices. It has simply taken the state some time to catch up with it.
What about your children's records in a charter school?
The recent push for a national computer database that would be used to link the various departments of government and to trade information among agencies via what President Clinton has called "the information super-highway" should cause Christians concern. One of the five elements of the "educational restructuring" program at the federal level is a national database for all students.
In California, a bill to begin development of a mandatory statewide database was passed in both houses of the legislature last year. The bill was only defeated by the veto of a governor whose concern over the bill was strictly economical. However, it seems only a matter of time before all public school students, at least, are tracked through a statewide computer system, eventually to be linked with a nation-wide system.
Once children are entered into the computerized databases, they stay in. The computer will record that a student has transferred to a private school, but the records currently in the system will likely not be deleted, since the goal is to eventually track all children.
These computer database systems are already set up to contain not only items like a student's math scores, but also to include intrusive information on private family values and practices, religious and political affiliations, confidential health information, and more. Other governmental agencies, like the Child Protective Services, will have access to use these computerized records as evidence, if desired.
This trading of information among government bureaucracies is dangerous. Consider that already a large percentage of false child abuse accusations against Christians come from public school officials.
Are there any other problems related to charter schools?
Yes. In addition to the problems discussed here, there are the usual problems of being tied into the public school system. The child is under the control of a system which has an agenda entirely different than that of Christians. One of the aims of the charter schools catering to home educators was best stated by Superintendent Larry Acheatel of the Western Placer Unified School District. One of the reasons he likes the charter school program is "because we get access to parents whose kids have never been in public schools."
In addition to considering the specific problems listed, parents who are thinking of enrolling in a charter school should read the article entitled "Public School ISPs--Should You Join One?", available from CHEA of California, P.O. Box 2009, Norwalk, CA 90651-2009 for $1.00. [Note: a newer article is posted on the CHEA website: "Charter Schools: Should You Join One" by Roy Hanson at http://www.cheaofca.org/hanson_charter.htm.]
(1) California State Board of Education, "Charter Schools Questions," draft August 9, 1993, 1.
(2) Henry Campbell Black, M.A., Black's Law Dictionary(r) - Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, Sixth Edition, 1990.
(3) Black, 1344.
(4) This section of the Education Code requires that a statewide pupil assessment program be implemented which includes items such as "A method for producing valid, reliable individual pupil scores..., statewide performance standards..., authentic performance-based assessment..., end-of-course examinations in all major subject matter fields..."The terms "performance standards" and "authentic performance-based assessment" are catch phrases tied to Outcome-Based Education tests.
(5) Cathy Duffy, "Radical Reforms to Restructure Education Spell Danger for Homeschooling Parents," 1993, 1.
(6) El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools, Charter School Petition for Community School in El Dorado County, 4-5.
(7) Western Placer Unified School District, Home Independent Study and Adult Charter School, 2.
(8) Information on the CLAS test and why it is so dangerous to Christians was included in the article "Spankings, Parents & Schools" in the May-June 1993 edition of Roy Hanson's Private/Home Educators of California Legal-Legislative Update newsletter.
(9) Western Placer Unified, 6.
The information in this article does not intend to be, nor does it constitute, legal advice.
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