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School districts left with charter bill

With high scores, increasing popularity, programs have exploded in the SCV, but some educators lamen

Posted: September 9, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 9, 2012 2:00 a.m.

The Santa Clarita Valley’s charter school population has exploded in the last decade.

When Albert Einstein Academy began enrolling students for its seventh grade a little over two years ago, it received 230 applications for 75 spots.

As full-sized high schools are forced to push student-to-teacher ratios past the 38-to-1 mark, Santa Clarita Valley International, a charter school in Castaic, caps class sizes at 25.

Supporters can point to hyper-involved parents and impressively successful fundraising efforts, said Susan Belgrad, an early childhood education professor at California State University, Northridge.

“Charter schools have achieved a number of things,” Belgrad said.

“They’ve been able to be resourceful and raise money on their own, as a private school does. And when parents are more involved, children are going to do better,” she added. “All of our research tells us this.”

SCVi students work with iPads, thanks to a deal struck with Apple. But that’s not a practical purchase for most schools in the 23,000-student Hart district.

The price of such perks, according to opponents of the charter movement, is paid by the students in those larger, non-charter-school classrooms.

In the Santa Clarita Valley in particular, charter schools don’t match up to their original intent, Superintendent Marc Winger of the Newhall School District said recently.

“I’ll go and say it’s a mistake,” Winger said Thursday. “It’s a mistake to bring any charters into the Santa Clarita Valley.”

How it works

A charter school operates with the oversight of the district that approves its petition for a charter. It has the same restrictions as a public school, and the charters are held accountable to the same standardized testing as non-charter schools.

But the state doesn’t mandate how curriculum is taught. In return, it imposes specific requirements on school results.

The original goal of charters, which first began to sprout up in the early 1990s, was to offer educators who felt hamstrung by state guidelines a chance to experiment to help low-performing schools, Belgrad said.

Options in education are important for parents, according to Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, who is an advocate of education reform and charters.

“In no way is (my support) an indictment of the public school system in Santa Clarita,” said Smyth, who said two of his children go to Newhall School District schools.

Forty percent of the state’s 38th Assembly District, which Smyth represents, falls within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But local districts are a far cry from some elsewhere that have been ranked low performing, Winger said.

Where it works

The Williams S. Hart Union High School District is the only district so far to charter schools in the Santa Clarita Valley. Besides Hart, there are four elementary school districts locally.

Charter schools are required to prove to prospective chartering districts their means and goals in 16 different areas, said Jeffrey Shapiro, executive director of the supporting foundation for Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Opening in September 2010 with grades seven through nine, the charter school can already boast impressive results, according to Edward Gika, academy principal.

Adding a grade each year, the school still has one more year to go to reach its goal of offering grades seven through 12, yet it received accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in just two years, Gika said.

Additionally, last year’s student Academic Performance Index score of 908 for the academy is well above the state’s goal of 800, he said.

But Winger questions whether the creation of what he calls “elitist” schools, which draw dollars away from cash-strapped districts’ non-charter sites, is the best way to reform education.

“We would like to be able to consider (the financial effects) when looking at a charter school application,” said Vicki Engbrecht, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Hart district, “but we’re not allowed to.”

The charter must be considered on its merits and how well it meets requirements set forth by the state, she said.

Perception, reality

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how charters operate, even among parents with school-aged children, Belgrad said.

Some charters, such as Opportunities for Learning, align with district goals of providing academic recovery for students and helping them re-enroll in non-chartered sites, Engbrecht said.

Other charters, however, compete with schools for “average daily attendance” funding, the state formula that provides money to schools for each student in the classroom.

A charter receives approximately 70 to 80 percent of the state funding non-charters do, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But there’s a give and take, said Amber Raskin, co-founder of SCVi.

Despite the lower funding, “somehow we make it work, and I think that’s why Sacramento likes us,” Raskin said.

A charter’s petition process can be an expensive one for school districts, said Joan Lucid, superintendent of the Saugus Union School District.

The district is currently reviewing the third elementary school charter application by Einstein Academy.

“Each petition will run anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000,” she said, mentioning rigorous review the district must pay for. Additional staff time spent researching the petition is not included in that figure, she said.

The bigger cost paid by districts is the funding that non-charter sites miss out on when a charter is accepted.

SCVi counts approximately 815 students, according to Hart district figures for 2012-13 that are not yet final. That represents state reimbursement for 815 students that goes to SCVi and not Hart schools.

Despite the drawbacks to existing school districts, charter schools enjoy widespread public support, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Seventy-six percent of Americans under the age of 40, and more than three-fourths of Republicans, support charter schools, according to an annual national poll.

“They call it choice,” Winger said. “But that choice is going to ruin public schools.”



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