Element Education operates several charter school locations authorized by the Dehesa School District. Dehesa has located these schools within the attendance boundaries of several school districts without getting the approval of the elected school boards in the area. Thousands of students attend these schools affecting enrollingment and revenue for those districts. Dehesa district’s enrollment is not afffected. The district of 175 students receives over a million dollars per year just for authorizing these schools, most of which were established by Dehesa themselves.
Public schools in Escondido find themselves in the crosshairs of newly-energized enemies since Donald Trump’s ascendancy, although a recent California court ruling against charter schools has provided a rare, if narrow, victory.
Charter schools have already been imposing a heavy toll on public school finances due to declining enrollment, especially in Escondido’s elementary district but also in its high school district. And now Trump and his new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, are promoting taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious and private schools, which if approved would certainly sap even more dollars from public education.
In this current school year, the elementary district (EUSD) has lost between 500-600 students, most of whom enrolled in the Epiphany Charter which was approved by the Board of Trustees last year. Superintendent Luis Ibarra said that the loss of students in EUSD has been a steady trend, as charter schools have proliferated. The high school district (EUHSD) superintendent, Steve Boyle, said that his district declined by about 200 students this year, again with charters the main factor.
Ibarra believes that the declining enrollment has seriously affected funding, and is “not sustainable.” He said that EUSD faces $1.5 million in cuts this year. As a result, the district is looking at reducing or eliminating programs as well as eliminating teacher and staff support positions. Yet Ibarra is determined to stem the flow of students away from public schools. The district formed a Declining Enrollment Task Force to investigate reasons for the exodus and to examine ways to reverse the trend.
One strategy they adopted is to showcase EUSD’s signature programs. “We have wonderful enrichment programs in our schools, including art, music, and dance,” he said. “We are using social media to highlight every school in an effort to convince the community of our success.”
Ibarra acknowledges that Classical Academy Charter has carved a niche with parents who seek a home school, independent study format. “EUSD also offers a home education option, which we are trying to expand,” he said. “Most important, we are on a campaign to improve academic achievement, and let the community know.”
Ibarra stressed that EUSD is working hard to improve its program for English language learners. “Our district is on the verge of a breakthrough, and our teachers and administrators are committed to working smarter on our pedagogy in how to teach those students,” he said.
Ibarra faces a dilemma: while his school board approves new charters, taking away students and funding, thus threatening programs, he seeks to improve and expand programs in order to compete with those same charter schools.
Court rules some charter schools operating illegally
In January the California Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision that charter schools may not operate “satellite” facilities outside of the geographic boundaries of the district that granted the charter, within the same county. This ruling applies to “non-classroom based” instruction, such as independent study at resource centers.
Dehesa School District has 175 students, yet operates 22 different charter school locations or satellites.
For example, the small Dehesa School District, east of El Cajon, has granted charters to education “companies” and other institutions, which have set up branch locations all over San Diego County, including Escondido. The granting school district benefits by reaping an oversight fee from the charter schools of up to 3% of the charter’s revenue. Maureen Magee of the San Diego U-T reported on this situation.
Magee wrote that the new ruling was a blow to “California’s booming satellite charter school industry” which has “persevered through lawsuits, scandals and turf wars…” Julian School District, with only two schools of its own and a few hundred students, earned $800,000 from its charters in one year. Mountain Empire district earned up to $500,000 for its charters, she wrote, while both districts had virtually no loss of students to those same charters.
These so-called sweetheart deals result in yet another ironic predicament. According to the San Diego Dept. of Education, the primary oversight over charters—including enforcement of state regulations and educational standards—lies in the hands of the authorizing districts. And those districts have a financial incentive to not rock the boat. Charter schools have become their sugar daddy. It’s like the proverbial fox keeping watch on the chicken coop.
The new ruling makes this practice illegal. On March 9 the California Board of Education granted offending charters an opportunity to apply for a waiver of the ruling until June 30, 2018, in order to come into compliance. Charters which are granted this waiver must develop a “transition plan” with their authorizing school district in order to meet the new rule, and to share that plan with districts in which the satellites are located.
The powerful charter lobby will probably not accept the new ruling without a fight. Most likely the California Charter Schools Association, which has a massive presence in Sacramento and which commands a formidable war chest, will introduce legislation to overturn the ruling.
Charter school Situation is the Wild West
Superintendents Ibarra and Boyle both agree that these satellite charters have been problematic. “The charter situation in this area is the Wild West,” Boyle said. “They come and go, and the authorizing districts do not notify us when they locate new sites in our district. It is difficult to know how many students are affected.”
Ibarra agrees. “They pop up, and it makes it complicated for us,” he said. “It should be a typical courtesy to notify us, but they don’t make contact. And we have no oversight over these students and schools in our own community.”
In San Diego County, about 25,000 students in 43 schools are enrolled in these non-compliant satellite charters, according to Magee. Statewide, the figure is close to 150,000 students who are affected. Magee wrote that “millions of dollars in revenue is generated by charters for privately run organizations.”
Alianza North County made repeated inquiries by phone and email to Element Education, Inc., the company that operates satellite charters in the Escondido area, including Dehesa Charter and two Community Montessori schools. Its executive director, Terri Novacek, failed to respond. Alianza also contacted Learn4Life, a company that operates the Diego Valley charter in Escondido. Regional principal Craig Beswick replied that litigation prohibited a response, but he added: “Most of our students are Latino and over the age of 17 1/2 and have no place to go if schools like ours were to close.” This statement is unsubstantiated since public schools are required to accept all students. Tiny Dehesa School District has authorized 22 county locations for charters, including three in Escondido. Its superintendent, Nancy Hauer, declined to comment, citing “ongoing litigation” which “prevents” her from responding.
High school district fighting back
EUHSD superintendent Boyle, like Ibarra, wants to bring back students to the public school sector. “We are trying to do things differently,” Boyle said. “We are having some success at persuading parents and students to switch from private schools to ours. Kids want bigger opportunities that we can offer, such as sports, music, dance, auto shop, and Advanced Placement courses,” he said.
Charter schools have “carved out a niche,” Boyle said, “because parents like the smaller environment and other perceived benefits. We’ve created online learning and independent study programs. Students are assigned a teacher and instruction may take place online. We offer a ton of online courses,” he said.
“We have to do a better job of marketing to the community,” he said. “We need to make sure our programs are competitive. Parents and kids need to see what we can offer.”
Future of public education
Trump’s administration poses new challenges for public education in the U.S. Critics fear the growth of charters, including for-profit education “companies,” as well as taxpayer funding for private and religious schools. Many say that the not-so-hidden conservative agenda is to keep reducing funding to public schools, then blame them for “failing” schools, in order to justify a push for more privatization.
Many researchers have concluded that charters do not generally produce better academic achievement than public schools, and often it is the opposite. Certainly charter critics have reason to decry the uneven playing field between charters, which are accused of “cherry-picking” the best students, and public schools, which are required to accept all students.
Calling himself an “advocate for public education,” Boyle is concerned about some of these trends. He said he is “not excited about the prospect of the federal government taking money away from public schools and giving it to private schools. Where is the monitoring and accountability if dollars are going to private schools? The foundation of our nation is based on a level playing field, and the goal of public education is to educate everybody. For the health of our nation we need strong public schools,” he said.
Ibarra said that federal funding is important to EUSD. “The most needy students should get funding through federal programs like Title I,” he said. “Every student has a fundamental right to a quality education, and that’s what puts our nation ahead of the rest. We are not adequately funded at present by the state and national governments, which must continue to support public education,” he said.
According to Ibarra, “We have a moral imperative to provide equal education for all.”
Rick Mercurio is Alianza North County’s Lead Reporter.