Calif. Rules Hitting Home For Charter Schools

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Many California charter schools are facing declining enrollments and tighter regulations this academic year, following the passage of new restrictions on schools that cater to home-schooled students.

Roughly one-third of the state's 156 charter schools will be affected by the changes when they take effect in January. Under a law signed by Gov. Gray Davis in July, schools that rely on instruction that is not classroom-based will have to limit their enrollments to students living in the county that granted their charters or any contiguous counties.

The law also requires that the schools provide the same amount of instructional time as traditional schools, and that they comply with the rules for the state's longstanding independent-study program.

The rules were part of a compromise reached after lawmakers backed away from an earlier plan to cut state funding of non-classroom- based charter schools altogether. ("Calif. Deal on Charter Unionization Moves Forward," June 16, 1999.)

Currently, only California and Alaska have charter school laws that allow for charter schools that are mainly home-based; nine states have charter laws that don't address home-based education, and 26 states prohibit state-supported home-based education programs.

Justification Debated

Home-schooled students enrolled in charter programs often do their schoolwork through some combination of home study with computers and textbooks, time in a more traditional class, and one-on-one time with a teacher or tutor.

Part of the original impetus for the changes in California law were concerns that some charter schools and their sponsoring districts were benefiting financially from such home-school-oriented charter schools. For example, some reports said schools were enrolling students from other districts and extracting administrative fees that exceeded actual overhead costs.

Some lawmakers were also concerned that some home-based programs lacked adequate instructional oversight, said California Secretary of Education Gary K. Hart, an appointee of the Democratic governor.

"There were some anecdotes and rumors- -just a general concern that there were abuses that were not consistent with what a public education system should be," Mr. Hart said. "Home schooling was not something we contemplated in the original charter school law."

But many of the state's charter school advocates say that abiding by the state's independent-study regulations could hamper the academic freedoms that make current non-classroom-based programs appealing to students and families. The independent-study rules give districts the authority to determine curriculum, for example, and mandate that students have access to regular classrooms--a potentially troublesome requirement for charter schools that provide most of their instruction through distance learning.

And while the effects of the new regulations won't become fully known until January, charter schools whose student populations extend beyond their contiguous counties are already grappling with dropping enrollments.

At the 350-student Prosser Creek Charter School in Truckee, for example, 80 students who attended the school last year won't be able to this year because they live outside Nevada County or its surrounding counties. Those students will likely have few organized educational options because there are no charter schools that serve home-based students in the counties where they live, said Jayna Gaskell, the head of school at Prosser.

'Quick Fix' Attempt Seen

Moreover, Ms. Gaskell argued, the mandate that non-classroom-based charter programs work under the independent- study rules is a "quick fix" that doesn't take into account the individualized curricula many such schools use.

"I agree with the [lawmakers'] intent that there needs to be a mechanism for accountability in home-based programs," Ms. Gaskell said. "But they didn't take into account the reasons why these kids 350 miles away would want to enroll in a little charter school in Truckee. They took a pre-existing program and stuffed us into it."

Ultimately, much of the impact of the regulatory changes hinges on how the state board of education applies the language of the independent-study law to non-classroom-based charter schools--a process that won't likely be completed for several months.

Until that time, advocates for the nontraditional but publicly funded schools say they are working to counteract what they see as one of the main reasons the legislature opted for a crackdown in the first plan: an image problem.

"This is not about some kid in a dark room turning on a computer for 10 minutes a day," David Patterson, the director of governmental affairs for the California Network of Educational Charters, said of the charter programs for home-based students. "The bottom line is that we have to demonstrate that this is a valid educational approach."

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 16

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Calif. Rules Hitting Home For Charter Schools
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