Partisan Politics in a Publicly-Funded School?

By Rebecca Nutile

   Public schools have traditionally been known as the great equalizer, the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Public schools are the place where we, as a community, are supposed to set aside religious and political differences and work for the greater good of the community’s children. Public schools are supposed to be secular and free of partisan politics. While individual teachers and administrators are private citizens and allowed to hold their own political views, they should not promote particular candidates in any publicly-funded school. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

In today’s world of education “reform,” the charter school sector has grown beyond its original purpose (serving as laboratories for the public schools, not as competition) into networks of poorly-regulated schools of varying quality with a quasi-public status. In these publicly-funded/privately managed schools, subtle and not-so-subtle partisan politics often go unchecked. And while charter schools are not required by law to adhere to many parts of the education code, they are supposed to be held to the same standards as traditional public schools in the areas of political partisanship and the separation of church and state.  Ideologues use charter schools as vehicles because they can finance with taxpayer funds, there is little public oversight. Charters appoint their own school boards and keep democratically-elected school boards at arm’s length once their charter has been approved. These private school boards tend to be comprised of those who have a similar ideology as their founders. The public has no say in who sits on a charter school board.

In Escondido, Escondido Charter High School, Heritage Elementary and Heritage Digital have become points of controversy and division in the community. Most know them as the controversial school with strong ties to conservatives in City government that took over a heavily-used library branch.  At the time the Council voted to close the branch (4-1), there were millions in the City’s reserve fund that would have covered several years of operating costs. Additionally, a non-profit offered a substantial amount toward the operating funds. Yet the four conservative members of the council voted to close it, citing lack of funds. It was a very public and very hard-fought closure by members of the community, many of whom had helped to create and run the library branch. After waiting for the smoke to clear, the charter school signed a multi-year lease with the City, effectively taking over a public asset for their private use.

On numerous occasions this group of taxpayer-funded schools has skirted, and likely crossed the line, into partisan politics. Following are some examples:

  1. Blatant electioneering by the GOP on school grounds.  Click through to see photos of a political rally held for Republican candidates in May, 2010, pay special attendance to what the school’s white tiger mascot is wearing. Mitt Romney, Meg Whitman, Darrell Issa and Pete Wilson are all in attendance. While my understanding is that it’s legal to use the facility for a political rally, it’s questionable in the least, to dress the school’s mascot in anti-Democratic Party garb ( A shirt that says “Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Democrat”)  and surround it by cheerleaders in school uniforms.  Adults in the photo appear to be leading the students in cheers forRepublicans and against Democrats. I’ve been unable to find any evidence of attempts by the school to balance GOP influence with alternative political points of view.
  2. Roger Hedgecock, a well-known area conservative radio host broadcast his program from the school. (could add photo here)In 2007 when the campus’ American Spirit Theater opened the U-T stated”… Schedules permitting, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or Rep. Brian Bilbray will speak to students electronically Thursday. Roger Hedgecock will broadcast from the campus during the open house from 3 to 6 p.m. The minutemen were allowed to show their film,….and according to ….Roger Hedgecock signed books in the lobby during that event.
  3. Spring trips to the anti-immigration rallies in Washington DC were an annual event. Mr. Snyder and his group of students were interviewed on the Lou Dobbs show alongside Hedgecock and the leader of the Minutemen. According to the transcript this was a rally of 400 people, an odd choice for a Spring Field trip to say the least.. (link to transcript of the show and quote) DOBBS: A rally this week in Washington is aimed at drawing attention to the rising illegal alien crisis in this country. The group says their message is simple: secure our borders and secure them now.Lisa Sylvester reports from Washington.(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Their message is simple. But immigration reform groups say Washington’s leaders have not been listening. So now more than 400 people from all over the country traveled to D.C. to rally for change.TERRY ANDERSON, RADIO HOST: Eighty percent-plus of the American people over and over and over have said we want the borders closed.SYLVESTER: The group includes 18 talk radio hosts who took their shows on the road, broadcasting from a Washington hotel.ROGER HEDGECOCK, RADIO HOST: Homeland security is a hoax if we don’t have border security.

    SYLVESTER: San Diego’s Roger Hedgecock has a message for lawmakers. He’s holding their feet to the fire.

    HEDGECOCK: Secure the border first. Secure the border now. The Minutemen have shown it can be done with guys with folding chairs, binoculars and cell phones SYLVESTER: The Minutemen are also in Washington this week after their highly visible patrol of the Arizona border.

    CHRIS SIMCOX, THE MINUTEMAN PROJECT: With the reports of the 9/11 Commission, the reports from the FBI, the CIA, all of our national security organizations admit that even now, three years after September 11, the greatest threat to our national security is the border with Mexico.

    SYLVESTER: Dennis Snyder brought students from his California Charter School to lobby Congress. He says the growing illegal population is draining state resources.

    DENNIS SNYDER, ESCONDIDO CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL: Obviously the taxpayers pay for our public education. And so all the influx of illegal aliens and students that are affecting our schools, which causes the taxpayers to build more schools.

    SYLVESTER: Supporters of a tight U.S. border are growing in number and becoming more organized, a point they hope Washington begins to notice.

    (END VIDEOTAPE)

  4. When complaints were made that perhaps the public should not be funding such a trip, but why would such a trip be planned in the first place? (quote)
  5. Right-wing politicians are heavily involved in the school and send their children there.

Students may work as an intern for Marie Waldron, a Republican Assembly woman. Waldron as a city councilperson cast a vote to close the library branch that would later become Heritage Digital Academy. She also passed a proclamation….

While there are numerous examples online of Republican politicians visiting the school, promoting and giving money to the school, there is no evidence of any prominent Democrats visiting the school, offering internship opportunities. There are no trips to peace rallies or anti-war events. While this is a politically conservative community.

Photo of tax form in which they checked the box that they did not engage in political activities.

501 C3 status clearly checked the box that they did not engage in any political activities.

It is no secret this school is run by ultra conservatives with ties to city hall. And of course, every founder and employee has the right to his/her own politics and political philosophies but those preferences should be checked at the door when they walk inside of the door of a school that would not exist but for taxpayer funding. Perhaps schools that push a particular political ideaology should seek private funds, private facilities for promoting their ideology.

While many of the above-named activities may be technically legal, the ethics of using our public schools as a training ground for a particular political party are highly questionable.  Using scarce educational funds to further a partisan political agenda when the realpublic schools in our communities are hurting so badly is unconscionable.

Re: grand opening of theater

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2007/sep/26/charter-school-fulfills-its-dream/

In 2005, on the Lou Dobbs show http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0504/26/ldt.01.html

Why was this school formed in the first place?

Why was it formed as a charter school as opposed to a magnet or a private school?

Does it adhere to the Education Codes and other laws that it is supposed to?

In Escondido Charter High school. There have been numerous complaints of partisanshipEvidence of partisanship:

Political Rally with Meg Whitman

Trips to Washington DC

Broadcast from the school

501 C3 Status

Did not engage in political activities

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