by Rick Mercurio
Area charter schools tout that they provide a “choice” for families in Escondido and all of North County. That is true, but large numbers of the parents who choose charters like Heritage K-8, Escondido Charter High School and Classical Academy are apparently seeking an education for their children that facilitates Christian beliefs and a predominantly Caucasian demographic.
One key state requirement is that charter schools reflect the ethnic make up of their community. That has clearly not been achieved at Heritage and Classical Academy charter schools. Whereas Escondido’s public elementary district (EUSD) has 74% Hispanic students, according to its website, Classical Academy has 18%.
Cameron Curry, executive director of seven Classical Academies in Oceanside and Escondido, defended his schools’ policies, despite the wide discrepancy in ethnicity between the communities and the charters. “Our demographics reflect a cross section of the community,” he said. “Many parents come looking for options that the district does not provide.” He added that he is seeking ways to spread the word through the Hispanic community. The schools’ website does have a small section in Spanish, but no Spanish option is found on its home page, as is found on EUSD.org .
Such hit-or-miss efforts, said George Martinez of the California Federation of Teachers in a San Diego U-T article, mean that charter schools aren’t truly accessible to all students. “They’re not offering anything different and anything new than what public schools are offering. They’re offering exclusivity more than anything else,” Martinez said. “You create … fundamentally a private school flavor funded with state funds.”
Curry proclaimed that his charters have an English Learner (EL) program. “But you find languages like Russian,” he said with obvious pride. In the same community, EUSD has 46% percentage of EL students, with a comprehensive program geared toward Spanish language learners who make up the large majority of their ELs.
Another way that charters are out of touch with Escondido’s general population is economic status. One measure is the free and reduced lunch program, for which 75% of students qualify in the EUSD, according to Assistant Superintendent Michael Taylor. In sharp contrast, the charter schools do not offer this program at all, which effectively shuts out the majority of poorer students from their schools.
“Our doors are not closed to anyone,” Curry said. Many of his families are homeschooling their children, he maintained, so school lunches are usually not an issue. Poorer families, however, are generally not able to afford the luxury of stay-at-home parents who can deliver homeschooling. Again, the charters’ policies tend to discourage a less affluent clientele. “We can’t be all things to all people,” Curry added.
Level playing field?
One way that some charter schools have gamed the system is through a recent California law that provides charters lots of extra funding for simply locating near a “high poverty” traditional public school. Heritage K-8 Charter, for example, is in proximity to Oak Hill Elementary, and so receives the extra taxpayer dollars. Yet the legislation makes the playing field all the more uneven, because it does not require enrollment preference to the very students at the high poverty school who actually generate the extra dollars going to the nearby charter school.
Other important differences exist between charters and traditional schools. One way is that public school districts are governed by democratically elected school boards. When poor decisions are made at the board level, the people may vote for new trustees, as happened in the Poway district after the bond fiasco there. Charter schools, by contrast, are usually governed by a non-elected group of parents and community supporters who are often beholden to the founder of the school.
Another difference involves state funding formulas. Like many charter schools, Classical Academies centers on independent study. “The entire format of every program at the Classical Academies is independent study,” Curry said. “If you have students on campus five days a week, the program by default would be an ‘in seat’ program and that is not who we are and what we do.”
Charters with independent study programs receive the same funding as traditional schools from the state for each student, based on average daily attendance (ADA). At traditional schools students must actually show up for the school to be paid. Independent study programs receive the same ADA funding simply when a teacher verifies that student work was completed at home, whether the student was sick or not. Therefore charter schools save on their facilities and staffing costs by receiving ADA from kids who attend school a limited—sometimes very limited—amount of time, as compared to kids who attend traditional schools every day.
Some charter critics point out that at charter schools, Christian parents are able to skirt the strict separation of church and state that is required for all taxpayer funded schools. Lyn Burnes was a parent of a homeschooled Escondido Classical Academy student. In a Voice of San Diego article she self identified as a Christian who was “unnerved by the public schools’ take on US history and evolution. ‘I wanted to reinforce (the charter school’s curriculum) with my own values, at home.’ Charter schools are filling that niche.”
Curry admitted that many Christian families do choose his schools with religious education in mind, and in fact they ask for his school to pay for religious curriculum and publications, but he denies providing any such resources. A Classical employee estimated that 95% of incoming families desire a religious approach for their child.
“All materials are non-sectarian,” Curry said. “We do not pay for Bibles or Sunday School type resources.” But, he said, the state standards do permit teaching about religions of the world. One text, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, is used in sixth grade history courses at Classical Academies, paid for by taxpayers.
That book’s first chapter is called “The Earliest People,” and begins with the subsection entitled “The First Nomads.” The author writes that they lived 7000 years ago. No serious historian believes this date is even close for the earliest people or first nomads, but it fits in with a creationist timeline.
The book is laced with Bible stories, often presented as factual history. One chapter’s subtitle is “God Speaks to Abraham.” The book asks its readers, “Do you remember the story of Joseph?” then goes on to re-tell it. On page 104 the book reads, “The Book of Exodus, in the Bible, tells us the story of what happened next,” following by a lengthy excerpt from the Book of Exodus. The author uses the Bible’s Book of Daniel to teach about Nebuchadnezzar, and the Gospel of Luke to teach about Jesus’ birth and resurrection. The author concludes that “we” call December 25, the birth of Jesus, Christmas. The “we” is telling. Other culture’s religions are examined in the book, but all their gods are lowercase g, whereas the Judeo-Christian narratives use a capitalized God throughout.
Blurred legal lines
The way The Story of the World practically assumes that readers know and accept Bible stories, presenting them like any other history, without corresponding treatment of other faiths, most likely runs afoul of state regulations. Legal experts have stipulated the following boundaries for the teaching of religion at public schools:
- The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
- The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion.
- The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seem to conform students to any particular belief.
In a follow up email Curry was careful to state: “The Classical Academies do not host, promote, advertise, or proselytize for any religion, worldview, or political viewpoint; unlike the Alianza publication. Our educational philosophy is that parents are the primary educators of their children and our role is to provide tools, resources, classes, labs, electives, training, etc. so that parents are greatly supported in that role.”
Classical Academy, therefore, “supports” Christian parents who desire religious resources in homeschooling their child. Blatantly religious materials that Classical may recommend must be purchased by the families, but more subtle religious texts, like The Story of the World, which at best is a questionable violation of the separation of church and state, have been provided by Classical at taxpayer expense.
In a follow up email Curry stated that the book is “popular with parents” in a “format that promotes literacy,” but that Classical is “seeking a replacement.” He also stated, “Annually we are reviewing what we use.” In previous years, The Story obviously passed such a review.
As for the teaching of creationism, he said that in his personal opinion, it holds weight as a viable scientific theory along with evolution. “It is faith either way,” he said. “Scientists weren’t there at the moment of creation and neither was I. No one had a camera to record what actually happened.” In a follow up statement after an interview, Curry wrote: “The Classical Academies DO NOT teach, offer, or promote creationism as part of the science curriculum.”
It is apparent that some charter schools are satisfying the desires of certain types of families in North County. Questions remain, however, whether charter schools are
- meeting the legal requirements of reflecting the demographic characteristics of their communities,
- unfairly undermining the future of traditional public schools, and
- skirting the separation of church and state that is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.