This paper is intended as an addendum to my 1994 paper, "Charter Schools." That paper was written during the first year of charter schools' existence. Since then, new regulations and laws have been enacted to clarify some of the confusion over charter schools and to tighten the state's control, especially in the area of finances. Please read the original 1994 paper before this one, to get an overall picture of the charter school movement.
Are all charter schools the same?
No. At this writing, there are over 100 charter schools operating in California. During the next few years, expect to see an increase in both the total number of charter schools, as well as the number targeting home educators. Currently, only 8-12 charter schools are set up with independent study or home education in mind. Even among the ones geared for independent study, there are differences. However, the similarities far outweigh these differences and the laws related to charter schools apply to all of them.
Are you opposed to charter schools?
First, I am not opposed to charter schools, per se. My comments about charter schools are directed toward that minority of charter schools which offer independent-study-type programs.
Second, I am not necessarily "opposed" to charter schools which are set up for independent study. For non-Christian parents who are not concerned about providing a Christian education or placing their children under the authority of a government school, the charter school may be an option. I simply try to explain to Christian parents who desire to "home school" their children for the purpose of providing them a thoroughly Christian education, that this is not truly possible within the government charter school program.
Are charter school parents really "home schoolers"?
"Home schooling" is a term coined by its practitioners during the past ten to fifteen years. Because of this, definitions vary. My definition of this term, as used in this paper, includes not only having parents teach their own children, but actually having them take full authority over all educational decisions affecting their children. What subjects to teach, how to teach them, what materials to use, what assignments to give, what grades to award, what schedule to follow, and whether or not a student is making suitable progress or learning anything at all–these are all fully determined by the parent who homeschools. However, in every charter school of which I am aware, there is a government-employed teacher, consultant, specialist, or other staff person who oversees at least one of these areas.
Children in the charter schools are public school students. The charter schools are funded by taxpayer monies, and according to the California Constitution, all publicly funded schools must be under the "exclusive control of the officers of the public schools." Home schooling has, at its very heart, the removal of children from the control of the "officers of the public schools" and the return of that control to the parents. This cannot fully happen within the charter school.
What information has changed from the 1994 "Charter School" paper?
The most obvious change is that the charter school proponents who charged that my statements were unfounded regarding illegal funding of Christian materials and Christian training have had to do some scrambling during the past few years to stop such practices. Here are two examples.
Five years ago, some of the charter schools purchased Christian materials or reimbursed parents for them. Parents in these programs often told me I was incorrect in stating that this is not legal and eventually would be halted. (Many of those parents said if it turned out I was right, they would pull out of the charter school.) Now I know of no charter school which will knowingly purchase materials from Christian publishers. While many still allow parents to use Christian materials if the parents purchase them with their own money, such materials are not listed on a student's study plan or curriculum list. Christian materials are only considered "supplementary" among most charter school proponents. This is different from the blatant disregard for the law in the earlier years; however, the discerning parent can see that the intent to circumvent the law is still there—it is simply more subtle.
I am not aware of any charter school administrator who continues to claim that charter schools are not bound by the California Constitution. Five years ago, many charter school proponents argued stringently with me that I was in error in my interpretation that charter schools are included in "common schools" as discussed in Article IX, Section 8. The charter school administrators have dropped that argument, partly due the clarification by the State Legislature via AB 544. However, a creative new argument has arisen to replace it—some now argue that only the "school" (administrators and paid staff) are bound by the Constitution, not parents who teach their own children at home within the program.
I have heard conflicting reports about what the California Constitution says about Christian training within the charter schools.
Article IX, Section 8, of the California Constitution addresses religious instruction within public schools. The wording is straightforward and is available at any public library. A review of this section may be helpful:
"No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school..." Government funding cannot be used to support a religious school.
"...or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools..." A charter school may delegate responsibility (1) for children's education to the parents, but it cannot by law relinquish final authority (2) because the California Constitution requires its officers to have "exclusive control (3)." In contrast, private home educators retain both responsibility and authority over every aspect of their children's education. As stated above, this is a fundamental difference between private home schoolers and charter school or public school ISP members.
"...nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught..." Whether the parents are considered teachers, aides, volunteers, or some other title, the public school cannot allow them to teach religious doctrine within the program.
"...or instruction thereon be permitted..." This is a critical phrase. A school administrator or staff member cannot permit a volunteer or even a student to take over the class for even five minutes to teach Bible-based doctrine. Not only is it illegal for a public school teacher to teach religious doctrine, but it is also illegal for a public school administrator to permit religious instruction to be received by a pupil during the time he is in the school or program.
"...directly or indirectly..." This should clear up any possible misunderstanding of the previous wording by those who would allow a teacher to indirectly permit religious training.
"...in any of the common schools of the state." Current law [EC 47612(b)] makes it crystal clear that Article IX, Section 8 of the California Constitution includes charter schools. The legal term "common schools" as used in the California Constitution is synonymous with the term "public schools" as used in the California Education Code. AB 544 (passed into law in 1998) clarifies this further for laymen who have questions about this issue. It adds EC 47615(a)(1)&(2), which state "Charter schools are part of the Public School System, as defined in Article IX of the California Constitution. Charter schools are under the jurisdiction of the Public School system and the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools, as provided in this part."
Doesn't the U.S. Constitution protect the right of Christian parents to teach their beliefs to their children even in the charter schools?
First, the U.S. Constitution does not grant an absolute, unconditional right for a teacher or volunteer to promulgate their religious beliefs in a government-run school. While parents certainly may teach religious doctrine to their children, they cannot do so within the setting of a government school. If they could, parents all across the country could hold Bible studies in their children's public school classrooms, simply by volunteering to help out in class. Parents who desire a fully Christian education cannot legally obtain it in a taxpayer-funded school, even under the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
Legally, public school children cannot obtain religious training in their education programs in whole or in part. All that is left for parents is to "add" religious training during non-school time. This is wholly different from true Christian education, in which 100% of the education program is centered in Christ.
Maybe the "school" can't teach religion, but aren't the parents exempt since they aren't employees?
Part of this error stems from the idea that if the "school" isn't teaching Christian doctrine, then it's okay for individual teachers or volunteers to do so. This is what one charter school administrator told me during his school's first year. He is wrong and has since changed his argument to absurdly state that it doesn't matter what teachers teach because their program "does not require parents to teach anything or even to teach, only that students learn..." (4) other charter school includes language in their handbook that could lead to the same claim. It states, "Students will continually engage in the learning process. Students are given great latitude in what they learn but they must, indeed be learning." (5) The responsibility appears to be placed more on the student to learn than on the parent or teacher to teach. However, as Christians, we know that even if the program doesn't require teaching of children, God does!!! (6)(7) Additionally, even if the program doesn't require teaching, the administrator still cannot even permit religious instruction to be received by the student while he is within the charter school program.
If a charter school's requirements place the burden on the student to learn, rather than on the parent to teach, doesn't that free the parent from any restrictions or controls?
The charter school program may allow a student to study at home, but the school officials still have the responsibility of making sure he is learning. In the Sierra Summit program, for example, the parents are "co-facilitators." The "facilitator" is a state-credentialed teacher who is assigned to meet with the family at least once a month. In this program, parents are to keep work samples to be included in a portfolio; however, the handbook states that "ultimately, it is the Education Facilitator's responsibility to have examples of work for each student."
While charter schools vary on specific requirements related to portfolios, grades, numbers of meetings, title for "Education Facilitator," and more, they all have in common the requirement for someone to supervise each family. Charter schools must supervise the educational process in their programs, or they would be in violation of Article IX, Section 8, requiring "exclusive control."
But if the parents aren't members of the school, how can the school have any control over what the parents do within the program?
The parents may not be employees of the school, but a "partnership" is established between the parent and the school. Of course, as Roy Hanson states in his May/June/July 1998 newsletter, "What many unsuspecting ‘partners' don't realize is that big-government will be the senior partner..." For example, the Sierra Summit program states, "Parents, in consultation with the Educational Facilitator, are the co-facilitators..." The Bennett Valley charter school states that "members of the charter school include students, their parents, also known as parent/teachers, and resource teachers..." The Butte County charter school states, "Each parent/teacher will be required to sign a contract between the parent and the charter school..." The charter for the HIS program out of Lincoln states "The parent is the primary teacher..."
Many of the designers and administrators of the charter school or public ISP programs may desire to involve parents in their children's education. However, as stated earlier, the charter school must retain "exclusive control." If parents are "primary" teachers, co-facilitators, or are required to sign contracts with the controlling authority of the charter school, they are unwittingly relinquishing final control over their children's education – the antithesis of home schooling. The control of educational programs within the public school system rests with the public school officials even though the parents may be doing more than 90% of the work.
Is there an ethical problem for Christian parents who choose to enroll their children in charter schools?
It is not possible to provide a fully Christian education within the government school system. Attempting to do so raises an ethical problem. Christian education is more than teaching Bible as one of many subjects. It is more than having a Christian teacher, a Christian textbook, or a Christian student. Certainly Christian education includes these, but it also includes the method, purpose, and goals of teaching.
In order to satisfy the requirements of the California Constitution, no "sectarian or denominational doctrine [shall] be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted" in public schools, even indirectly. It has nothing to do with who is doing the teaching, whether paid staff or volunteers; the school may not permit it. So the charter school parent, administrator, or staff member must sidestep at some point to allow for Christian education within the program. Whether it is choosing not to list certain of the books used, educational goals established, or time spent discussing the biblical principles of each subject, at some point, the parent must separate what he is teaching as a Christian from what he is teaching for the school program.
This double-mindedness incorrectly teaches the children either that Christianity can be separated from the rest of life, or that compromising the truth is acceptable at some point (and in these programs, sadly, the point at which parents compromise is often a financial one.)
Can't parents make use of the charter school's willingness to fund their children's education while watching to make sure their family's freedoms are not usurped, then pull out if restrictions become too harsh?
The "eternal vigilance" idea has been expressed to me since way before the beginning of the charter schools by those involved in public school ISPs. It has been oft repeated by those in the charter schools since. What I typically see is that most are "eternally vigilant" to protect their "free benefits" rather than our private education and family freedoms.
Throughout the years, the public ISPs and charter schools have made their regulations more strict. The local districts and state Department of Education have become more threatening to the private home educators as a result of having the charter school or public ISP option available. By their very presence in the government school system, charter school and public ISP members have helped to build strength in numbers on the side of the government officials who seek to eliminate the private option and who claim that education can only take place under the supervision of state-certified experts. It is commonplace for local districts to send a letter saying that private home schooling is illegal, but "join our public program" and you'll be okay. "Eternal vigilance" rings hollow while the heat is being turned up. Those within the government school system may not be in a position to see it, but the opposition to private home school freedoms is getting hotter all the time.
What about parents who can't afford to home school? Doesn't the offer of free computers, texts, or other school materials help these families get out of public school classrooms?
First, those materials aren't "free." You can be assured that someone is paying money to purchase those items. The question is, if the parents aren't paying for the materials, who is? As Christians, it should be abhorrent to us to desire to force our friends and neighbors to buy these items for our children via taxation. The fact that the government is taking tax money for such an ungodly purpose does not make it right for us to be trying to get "our share."
Second, raising children can be costly, whether they attend a school with classrooms or not. As parents, we need to set a godly example for our children by learning to live within the means that the Lord has provided. When we say, "I want a computer for my child but God hasn't given me the money, so I'll turn to the government to supply my ‘needs,'" we are displaying a sinful lack of contentment in what God has already provided, and a lack of trust in God to supply what He determines are our true needs. I know of story after story of faithful Christian parents who turned their needs and desires over fully to the Lord. In each case, His provision was more than adequate; many times it was nothing short of miraculous.
Finally, as adults, we need to recognize that there is a high cost to joining the charter schools and public ISPs. Parents relinquish at least a part of their responsibility and authority to raise their children for God's glory. Those still considering joining a government program should ask themselves the following questions.
Do you want to have a government "advisor" or "facilitator"? Does it bother you to be required to enter a contract between you and the government charter school related to the rearing of your children? Isn't this an unequal yoking of the type we are warned against in 2 Corinthians 6:14? (8) Did you know that the charter schools are required to "conduct pupil assessments" and meet "statewide performance standards?" [EC47603(c)] Did you know that charter school students must "demonstrate that they have attained the skills, knowledge, and attitudes specified as goals in the school's educational program?"
Charter schools and public school ISPs are fundamentally different from private home schooling, where parents truly do have 100% of the responsibility, and with it, also have full authority to determine their own standards, and where neither parents nor students are assessed, monitored, assisted, encouraged, advised, or facilitated by the state.
(1) RESPONSIBIL'ITY, n. [from responsible.] 1. The state of being accountable or answerable, as for a trust or office, or for a debt. (Webster's 1828 Dictionary)
(2) AUTHOR'ITY, n. [L. auctoritas.] 1. Legal power, or a right to command or to act; as the authority of a prince over subjects, and of parents over children. (Webster's 1828 Dictionary)
(3) CONTROL, n. 2. Power; authority; government; command. (Webster's 1828)
(4) Letter from Randy Gaschler, director of Horizon Instructional Systems, A California Charter School, dated January 28, 1997.
(5) Sierra Summit Academy Handbook. Internet site: http://www.sierrasummit.org. May 16, 1998.
(6) "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." Deuteronomy 6:6-7
(7) "...bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4b
(8) "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?" 2 Corinthians 6:14
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