One thing all Americans can agree on: education is vital to our society, and we all want the very best education available for our children. We also agree that children are unique individuals, with different needs, talents, learning styles, and long-term goals. Along with their diversity, families are also very different, with varying parenting styles, educational levels, and non-educational considerations all to be uniquely balanced in how they raise their families. Raising educated children is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This is why it is vital that our public school system provide educational choice.
In fact, the common traditional public school classroom (“TPS”) model is a very recent development in the history of education, and like any construct, has its pros and cons. I personally was educated in a TPS, which gave me the foundation to become a highly successful attorney. I enrolled my oldest in Kindergarten in our TPS, only to be encouraged by his teachers just a few months later that he could get a far better personalized learning education (commonly referred to as homeschooling) at a non-site based public charter (“NSB”). Just as I became a successful adult via my TPS, my Kindergartener subsequently spent his next ten years as a charter/NSB learner and is now a 16 year old college sophomore with a 4.0. NSBs work.
Why then, is the California Teachers’ Association on a relentless attack against our 310 public not-for-profit NSBs? AB1316 is poised for a floor vote next week that will effectively displace many of these 200,000 children from their learning communities. No doubt, the CTA classroom model failed its students these past two years, much more than other models. As even our neighbors in affluent districts lament the loss of learning, and teachers gleefully celebrate the end of the “disastrous” year, many of our personalized learning charter students soared, despite having their live learning opportunities cut as much as their classroom peers. Perhaps it’s because, after teachers’ unions spent big money holding up education from returning to classrooms, huge droves of families left the system for personalized learning charters, and 15 million families are disinclined to return to the classroom this fall. Or, it could be simply because the California Teachers’ Union cares more about its own education model than what is best for all children, and in its own self interest has donated more than $1 million in campaign contributions to the authors of AB1316.
Personalized learning, defined as a broad set of strategies intended to make each student’s educational experience responsive to his or her unique talents, interests, and needs, is successful and growing. While opponents try to argue that the number of charter options providing personalized learning indicates the market is flooded, the opposite is obviously true. Every year, there are waitlists at most of these NSBs, as more and more families discover the failures of overpacked and now obviously-overcontamimated classroom footprints. Personalized learning NSBs are NOT online schools. While much has been made of a March 2021 article riddled with factual mistakes and inaccuracies, the most glowing error is that Pearson, Edgenuity, K12, and other exclusively online platforms are NOT personalized learning centers. In fact, ironically, the California brick and mortar schools dumped their students into those programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be sure we understand where our NSB students are, how they are learning, why they are successful, and why they are the wave of the future.
We need only compare the gaslighting “intent” of AB1316 with factual evidence to conclude that this bill is a waste of significant taxpayer expense, a destruction of important liberties, as well as a deceitful encroachment by those entrusted in our public sector to protect the needs of ALL of our students.
NSBs Already Follow Stringent Accountability Requirements; There is No Evidence of Additional Necessary Measures Justifying Burdensome Costs.
Member O’Donnell’s suggestion that his bill is all about accountability is simply not credible. He makes great hay of an unfortunate case being prosecuted by the San Diego Attorney General’s office. The truth is, three new reform laws have already gone into effect to address fraud concerns and ensure charter accountability: AB1505, AB1507, and SB126. Few, if any, organizations are as transparent and law-abiding as today’s NSBs.
I serve on the Board of Directors at my son’s NSB. Our school staff has willingly worked with state auditors combing through every aspect of the operations, finding not a single violation. Our NSB is fully compliant with the Nonclassroom-based Funding Determination Formula, ensuring that it spends at least 80 percent of its revenues on instruction, at least 40 percent on certificated staff, and that the pupil:teacher rate is 25:1 or better. Like any public school, ours fully complies with every state report mandate, including California Department of Education’s Local Control and Authority Plan (LCAP), a three-year school plan describing the goals, actions, services, and expenditures to support positive student outcomes that address state and local priorities. Our school is also fully accredited by The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a world-renowned accrediting association and one of the six regional accrediting agencies in the United States. Likewise, our charter school’s high school courses are also approved by the University of California “A-G” system.
Every aspect of our charter school’s finances and other business decisions are completely transparent and open for public comment. Our school board completely follows the Brown Act, and all of its board packets and required disclosures are readily available to the public. Charters must also be authorized and overseen by traditional public school districts, which occurs at publicly open authorizing district board meetings.
AB1316 has been rushed so quickly through committees that there is no information on how much the bill’s required oversight regulations might cost or what is their justification. The authors are seeking much more oversight in addition to all that is already working, from establishing an inspector general specifically for the state education department, to requiring the authorizing district to take on additional administrative duties, along with many other burdens that have no rational basis. To suggest that NSBs don’t already comply with rigorous accountability measures is completely disingenuous.
All NSB Funding is Appropriately Allocated to Students’ Learning Needs.
AB 1316’s authors show how far removed they are from the costs of quality education when they insist that 30 percent of NSB funds can be slashed because their education “doesn’t cost as much” as brick and mortar schools.
First, it is important to clarify that less than 10% of California’s 310 NSBs are “online schools.” They are personalized learning centers with full school staff and offices, and their teachers, specialized service providers, and resource libraries still meet live with students. Students also meet live for clubs and activities like National Honor Society, school academic teams, graduations, field trips, and other learning events. Rather than hold a limited amount of classes or limited curriculum that fit very few learners’ actual needs, they instead provide a greater breadth of quality instruction by funding approved instructional vendors better tailored to students’ learning goals. While NSBs don’t benefit from the “efficiency of costs” that TPS do by ordering the same textbooks for every single student, they instead offer students a learning path that uniquely fits that child’s needs. Those classes and vendors are individually approved for students by both their supervising certified teacher as well as a higher internal audit system. At no time are parents given money or an opportunity to spend funds on non-instructional items.
To illustrate how this works, suppose my 9th grader is allotted up to $2,800 of approved instructional funds. He needs that to stretch over all of his curriculum, classes, and supply costs for the entire year, and he needs to take a minimum of six classes.
Let’s suppose he takes a-g English through an approved vendor such as UC Scout. That class might cost $300 for the year, not including each of the six novels he’ll need to read and annotate. Let’s call that $400;
Now suppose he takes AP biology. That might cost $500/year, not including the biology labs (or the exams and test booklets, for that matter). Biology labs are expensive. We can buy lab supplies at a teacher supply store for approximately $300, or take live labs from high school instructors for more. To save money, we’ll just buy the kits. Together, this costs $800;
He is also taking Spanish 2. A live Spanish 2 (or higher level) teacher who teaches small group classes meeting a-g standards costs approximately $250/semester. That costs $500…
…. And you can see how this works. With six classes, we have easily used up or exceeded his funding allocation, fitting his particular class requests but without anything frivolous. If I had tried to include physical education, art, music, drama, etc subsidized by TPS, I would have far exceeded our limited fund amount. To arbitrarily reduce funding by 30 percent will only hurt students.
Vague Government “Teacher Certifications” do Little to Ensure the Depth of Educators’ Knowledge.
One of the great societal benefits of personalized education is that it provides more well-rounded learning from a youth’s wider community, valuing the expertise of professionals in their fields as we did for thousands of years before the dawn of big-government over-regulation. AB1316 will eliminate the ability of any professional with subject-matter expertise from educating students unless they also carry a teaching credential.
To insist that only educators with a particular certification provide student instruction is to misunderstand what the certificate actually represents. Dr. Diane Ravitch described teaching certificates at the 2003 White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers (published on the U.S. Department of Education’s website) as,“the barriers that are simply hoops and hurdles intended to screen people out of the profession who have not taken courses or degrees that have no relationship to being a good teacher.”
Continuing her concern about today’s teachers, Dr. Ravitch addressed:
We know we have some serious problems… in the academic preparation of teachers: only a minority-39%–have a bachelors or graduate degree in ANY academic field. The majority of teachers today have a degree in education, and many have both a B.A. and an M.A. in pedagogy…at a time when our students are expected to meet high standards in English, mathematics, science, and history, there is a mismatch between teachers’ academic preparation and the increasingly rigorous demands of the classroom.
In fact, nowhere in the California Education Code does it mandate teacher certification for educators. CEC 48222 says, “children who are being instructed in a full-time day school by person’s capable of teaching shall be exempted from compulsory education laws. Certainly, professionals with masters’ degrees in the field they are teaching are “capable of teaching.” There should not be conflicting standards of instructor capability within the Education Code.
How can California’s education system improve academic preparation, then? The answer seems simple, and is already being done with great success. Let the charters, already under significant accountability and transparently, continue to permit its certified teachers to authorize their students to take instruction from qualified subject-matter professionals. These professionals are strictly vetted, passing DOJ background checks, providing proof of business license and registration, and having to comply with stringent payment processing. The same cannot be said for many of the aides, volunteers, and enrichment providers in traditional public classrooms.
Efforts to Eliminate School Choice Reduce Equitable Access to Quality Education.
For anyone supporting the progressive movement towards more equitable educational access, charter education is the best answer. Misinformation abounds that NSB education is only accessible to the affluent. In fact, one study of 75,000 California NSB students identified 54 percent of the students as socio-economically disadvantaged, and 12 percent were identified as disabled. NSB students have equal access to special services for IEPS, 504s, and other special needs just as at any site based school. NSB learners often report that they feel less ostracization outside the classroom, where they aren’t pulled from class in front of their peers for services, and then have trouble catching up with missed lessons when they return.
Racial equity is also rapidly growing among independent learners. Forty percent of the 75,000 NSB students in the above study identify as Hispanic. An article in LaSchoolreport.com last week noted that families of Black, Hispanic, and Asian learners are choosing not to return to traditional classrooms at a rapidly increasing rate. A representative from the University of Washington’s Center for the Reinvention of Public Education (CRPE) explained that, “many parents of color see how badly education systems have served their kids in the past, with substandard instruction and more aggressive discipline.” A Black educator with three teen sons added, “ the past year has taught parents ‘that they have a voice at the table – and they are not being shy and retiring about letting people know what they want in terms of how they want their children to learn.’”
The simple truth is that those who can afford private alternatives to avoid the public classroom model will continue to pull their children out of “the system” in large numbers. Private school affidavits, where parents choose to pay for their independent learning completely on their own, and thus government regulators had virtually no access to those families, rose three hundred percent in the past two years. Traditional private schools, including boarding schools, still attract many wealthy families. Charter school education, along with the funding to provide the best learning options for each unique learner, is the only way to improve equitable quality education.
Independent Learning Students Excel in Charters as Compared to Traditional Classrooms.
Charter opponents use stagnant and incomplete data to suggest that personalized learning students are doing poorly compared to their classroom peers. Given that California public education consistently ranks at the very bottom of national rankings, the CTA has plenty of work to do in its own house. Nonetheless, it’s also important to note what factors affect charter student achievement.
With a rapid emigration from the classroom model to NSB charters comes a disproportionate number of students who were not succeeding, hence necessitating the change. Accordingly, those who have just moved to charter schools tend to initially perform lower on assessments than their comparable TPS peer averages. However, a 2017 Rand Corp. study of 62 personalized learning charter schools’ achievement findings indicate that compared to district classrooms:
Personalized Learning students surpassed national norms after two years. In both mathematics and reading, cumulative growth over the past two years is evident. Students started significantly below national norms, gained ground after one academic year, placing them above national norms at the end of the two years.
A study of the most recent 2020 graduation rates among 75,000 California NSB charter students positively demonstrated that the length of time at a NSB correlates directly with a student’s success rate beyond traditional school rates. The 2020 TPS rate was 81.2 percent. While students who only attended NSBs for one year had a lower graduation rate at 76.8 percent, this achievement quickly skyrocketed past the TPS rate to 89 percent within two years, steadily climbing to 93.9 percent for those spending four or more years with the NSB. Given that one third of these NSBs are classified by the Department of Education as DASS schools, with a high proportion of chronic expulsions or suspensions, dropouts and absenteeism, teen parents, etc, the evidence is clear. NSBs succeed.
On a related note, those who fight against personalized learning suggest that by permitting students to choose among classes and curriculum, they are not following state standards. What these detractors fail to understand is that standards are simply the lowest bar of expectation, and that charters ensure students are meeting that threshold just as every other public school in the state. Not only do NSB students take the CASSP state standard testing every year, but most NSBs also administer nationally recognized assessments correlated to California standards at the beginning, middle, and end of each school year to note each individual student’s growth.
The studies support what is obvious to those of us who can witness what independent learners are accomplishing compared to their traditional public school peers. Prior to last year’s quarantine, a close friend had 40 middle schoolers in his TPS classroom. While he is an excellent teacher, the science projects his class was able to investigate and explore were severely limited by the size of the class and mirrored what many “homeschool” kids were doing in early elementary school. At the same time, my 11 year old was taking a high school level “a-g” chemistry class taught by an RN with a chemistry degree, using actual high school bunsen burners and lab supplies that the students were able to obtain from their NSB charter approved funds. Our NSB encourages its high school students to dual enroll in the local college, and these charter students succeed there. Individualized learning can open doors that are severely constricted by classroom constraints.
Finally, On A Personal Note…
I’ll end this article by sharing that our family’s experience in NSBs has truly been a lifeline. Our children are profoundly gifted and several years asynchronous between their ages and their intellectual as well as social/emotional development. My son’s elementary teacher recognized what I didn’t at first: TPS models work well for a range of children, but certainly not for all. For many years, I’ve worked with TPS teachers, principals, superintendents, GATE administrators, a GATE magnet, and others in excellent school systems. Each has readily admitted that TPSs are not equipped for many of our out-of-the-box learners.
Through NSBs, I discovered a large community of families with children just like mine, all strongly supportive of traditional school, but disappointed that it cannot provide a quality education for our children. Through our NSBs, my children have developed academic, leadership, and social skills that are commonly admired amongst our community as far beyond more TPS peers. Both are extroverted, well-rounded, and blessed with many friends along with the best education we could possibly find. Please, for our family and all others with unique needs like ours, support NSBs and oppose AB1316.