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Charter schools: The price is too high

Charter schools: Look before you leap

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C O V E R   S T O R Y

written by Christopher J. Klicka, Esq.

It seems that everyone with school-aged children is talking about charter schools. Many are thinking, "This deal is too good to pass up: I can have my children educated outside of the public school system and have the government still pay the bill!" Charter schools along with educational vouchers appear to be harmless, since parents are only reclaiming their tax money.

Is it really that simple? Let's look at charter schools--especially virtual charter schools--and vouchers more closely, examining them from the perspective of freedom rather than asking, "What 'freebies' we can receive from the government?"

To accurately understand this issue, we must first define the terms.

What are charter schools?

Public schools establish a "charter" listing the school's mission, educational program, and methods of assessment. Charter schools answer to the state or local school board for assessing students and verifying academic progress. Charter schools are completely government funded.

Charter schools now exist in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Center for Education Reform estimates on its website that there are over 2,000 charter schools operating with more that 500,000 enrolled in these schools.1

Supporters of charter schools claim that creating competition in the education marketplace will result in more options and a higher quality education. The idea is that if public charter schools draw enough students away from regular public schools, the resulting lack of funds will force public schools to come up with creative alternatives to bring students (and the funding that comes with them) back into the system.

Additionally, proponents claim that charter schools provide an innovative alternative to traditional schooling, allowing creative approaches to teaching, free from the strict rules and regulations of the public school system. They point out that charter and virtual charter schools provide a protective environment, i.e., a smaller "private" school or home environment, where students can pursue their own styles of learning.

Charter schools operate on taxpayer dollars, so there is virtually no cost to students. Other often cited advantages are an accredited high school diploma, free computer, Internet access, software, and support by certified teachers.

So what's the problem?

With government vouchers and virtual charter schools and public schools offering all of these benefits, Home School Legal Defense Association often gets questions as to why we oppose such excellent educational options.

I believe the soul of the home schooling movement is at stake. How we respond to virtual charter schools and vouchers will determine the extent home schooling remains free from government controls in the future.

Freedom is the answer

For more than 18 years, HSLDA has been helping to win the right of families to home school with minimal regulations. Many of these battles took place in the courts and legislatures throughout the country. Many families faced fines, jail, and even the threat of the state's removing their children from the home. The families held onto their convictions and God honored them in an incredible way. It is now legal to home school in every state.

The battle to maintain this freedom continues as some school officials harass home schooling families with illegal requirements and teachers' unions and other professional education organizations have legislation introduced to restrict home school freedoms. A survey by the American School Board Journal, published in February 1997, of over 1000 public school executives found that 71% of superintendents whose state or district set standards for home schoolers did not believe home schoolers were regulated enough! Ninety-five percent of all the superintendents and principals in the survey believed anything else is better than home schooling.2

The National Education Association passes a resolution each year condemning home schooling and urging for legislation to be enacted in each state to require that home schooled children be taught by certified teachers and have their curriculum approved by the state.3 Prejudice against home schooling has not disappeared.

Despite these efforts, private home schooling, with no help from the government, is thriving. Research shows that home schoolers on average are academically above average from the elementary level all the way through college. All of this success has been achieved without government money. We have had many victories before Congress and the state legislatures because we are not asking for a handout, but simply to be left alone.

This liberty is at risk, however, if home schoolers begin drinking from the public trough. These are the same state governments that once heavily restricted or prohibited home schooling altogether. If home schooling families take government money or services through virtual charter schools, they will become dependent on government money and subject to increasing government regulation. Public schools and the state will once again acquire power to dictate home schoolers' curriculum, teacher qualifications, and methods.

This is not idle conjecture. It is already happening.

Government home schooling in Alaska

The old adage "There is no such thing as a free government service" is true. Government money always comes with strings. Governments will demand accountability for funding. States want to be assured that no fraud is involved and that the monies are not used for an improper purpose. The government has the responsibility to spend taxpayers' money frugally. For officials to give money to home schoolers to participate in charter schools without any conditions would be irresponsible.

Virtual charter schools must be accountable to the state or local school authorities. In addition to dictating the curriculum and teaching styles, virtual charter schools can impose requirements on the parents beyond that which is required by state home school laws, in order to assure that the parents are teaching the children "appropriately."

Take, for example, an Alaska program that typifies many virtual charter school programs springing up throughout the country.

On June 4, 1997, Alaska enacted the best home school law in the nation. Alaska's law has no teaching qualifications for parents, no regulation at any level of government, no notice to anyone of the parents' decision to conduct the home education, no registration with the state, no reporting to anyone of any information about the home education program, no testing of the children, no required subjects, and no evaluation of the program by anyone.

In the same month, the Galena School District launched a statewide correspondence study program known as the Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA). According to Galena, school officials want "to provide educational, emotional, intellectual, and financial support to those who would like to work in partnership with a public school district."4 Despite having more freedom than any other state, a majority of home schooling families are choosing to enroll their children in IDEA.

Carol Simpson, current Alaska Department of Education home school program coordinator, said IDEA was "wildly successful, going from 0 students in mid-June 1997 to 1157 students 10 weeks later."

Families who enroll their children in IDEA are provided curriculum materials, use of a computer with access to the Internet and assistance from a certified teacher, among other services. However, public funds may not be used to purchase curriculum materials for teaching core subjects if the materials are distinctively religious in content.5

The dangers of these types of government home school programs are apparent in a September 11, 2001, letter from Carol Simpson:

When IDEA started in summer of 1997, we began from the premise that homeschooling parents know their kids best and should be free to use any curricular materials that they deemed most appropriate. We bought nearly anything anyone wanted, including Bob Jones, Alpha Omega, A Beka, etc. By November of that year, the Department of Education (DOE) made a new regulation prohibiting school districts from purchasing religious curricular materials. . . .

The Attorney General of the State of Alaska advised us that we could not purchase anything that is an advocacy of a sectarian or denominational doctrine. . . .

Simpson then proceeded to tell a home school speaker IDEA had invited to speak at their five government home school conferences that the speaker could not sell her books at the conferences. Simpson explained,

I realize that your books are not "Christian books" and that any religious expression in them is incidental, not the focus of the book. However, we must be strict in our obedience to the letter and spirit of the law, honoring our governmental authorities . . . we must be careful not to give the appearance of promoting sectarian materials. As such, we cannot allow you to sell or promote these books in workshops that we are paying for . . . . Also, we want to avoid the appearance of promoting sectarian materials through your workshops as well. Please do not include references to faith or an emphasis on the inclusion of Biblical teaching in your presentations.

Alaska is in the process of creating an approved list of secular home school books. Notice also from the letter how gradual the changes have been. At first, the government paid for Christian home school textbooks. When 75% of home schoolers in Alaska became dependent on the government funds, the rules changed.

Simpson's letter plainly explains the danger to home schoolers' freedom posed by these government home school programs.

Some parents have told me they circumvent this in various ways and still use the state government's money to buy Christian textbooks. Dependence on government money is encouraging people to be deceptive.

Refusal to reimburse for any religious curriculum is not the only problem. Additionally, students in grades 4, 5, 7, and 9 must take the standardized tests that Alaska uses for public school students at a test site designated by public school officials, and the tests must be administered by a certified teacher approved by the Galena School District. All IDEA students are required to take the Alaska Benchmark Examination in grades 3, 6, and 8.6 As further evaluation of the student, each parent must report to Galena School District the progress of all students each semester.7

In final analysis, the 'freebies' are not free after all. The price is too high--a gradual but steady loss of freedom, control, and independence.

Home schooling in name only

Despite all of the attractions for home schoolers, virtual charter schools are supporting home schooling in name only. Parents who enroll their children in these virtual charter schools are actually creating small public schools in their home.

Recently, a Christian teacher in a large "brick and mortar" charter school program in Colorado told me that many Christian families are using the program and enrolling their children in the school. I asked her if the teachers could teach the Bible. She said, "No, but we can teach virtues."

"Are you allowed to teach the children about salvation?" I inquired.

"We are not supposed to," she replied.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an educational voucher program that has been operating for several years has been touted as one of the best examples of a successful government educational program. What many do not realize is that any Christian school that enrolls students who are using the government vouchers must comply with over 300 additional regulations. Two requirements even prohibit the Christian school from mandating that these children with vouchers attend chapel or Bible class!8

Home school parents originally fought to be separate from the public schools in order to have the right to choose the curriculum that they believe would be best for their children. Many parents removed their children from the public school system because of the non-Christian curriculum. So why would they want to go back to the same humanistic material? But this is happening with home schoolers who enroll in charter schools or public school programs for home schooling.

With significant restrictions on curriculum choices, parents in charter schools also face limited ability to incorporate creative teaching methods. The specific curriculum requirements often demand parents to "stick to the schedule" dictated by the public school, rather than use creativity in complimenting their child's learning style.

HSLDA members who have participated in virtual charter schools complain of this very thing. As one California home schooler shared:

Having been in a car accident and having been limited in my physical capabilities, I found myself not as able of getting my kids out as much as I felt they needed. Home educating independently for 3 years, I was reluctant to try a charter school but I thought, "How bad could it be? I'd have access to educational materials and my children would have an opportunity to meet other home educated children." At first it was exciting, though enrolling was very institutional. Then it came time to meeting with a teacher. We sat and talked and I stated that I had been home educating independently for 3 years and was not interested in meeting weekly and that I would bring their work in monthly as they are required to turn in work at least monthly. That worked out great the first month. The next month, however, the teacher wanted to plan out what we'd be doing for the following month. After being independent, I was not interested in being told what my kids would be learning, so we agreed we'd do the work we wanted and would write up the plans retrospectively. This was not ideal, but do-able since the kids enjoyed the Monday co-op (classes) and fieldtrips.

The next time we met, I took the kids' work but left the children behind. I never read or signed anything stating that my children had to be present. To me, turning in the work was the requirement. It soon became apparent that the teachers were required to talk to the children at these visits and assess them not only on their academics, but also on their physical appearance . . . looking for signs of abuse and/or neglect at their discretion. . . .

Make no doubt about it, a charter school is a public school . . . it's home schooling in technical terms only. Enrolling in a charter school will give you more freedom than the traditional public schools, but still strips you of the independent responsibility of educating our own children. It is still an institution, which believes we need interference from trained government agents, that we are incapable of educating our own children.

When this mother finally tried to remove her children from the charter school program, she was contacted repeatedly by child welfare services, demanding that she place her children in public school!

Is government money worth it? Aren't these the same types of controls home schoolers cast off with much sacrifice and risk in the 1980s? Are we willing forge new chains to limit our liberty?

Most home school parents want to be free to educate their children without this kind of government oversight.

Top education officials have warned against vouchers

Although we differ with the philosophy of many of the former federal secretaries of education, their statements are valuable since they evidence the intent behind government funding of private education. Lamar Alexander, Secretary of Education under former President George H.W. Bush explained the transformation of private education that was publicly funded when he said, "a public school would become any school that receives students who brought with them public monies . . ."9

Richard Riley, who served as former Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton, had strong reservations about vouchers and government funding of private education. No doubt, his reason for opposing government funding of private education was mainly to protect the current public school system, but he has some interesting warnings for private schools:

You have to be accountable with public tax dollars . . . when it comes to taking federal tax dollars and giving those to parents and then having the absence of accountability as far as their children's education . . . If you have accountability, then you lose the private and parochial nature of those schools . . . It's bad, we think, for private schools and parochial schools. It takes away from them the private and parochial strength, which is being totally free from any federal regulations . . .10

[Vouchers] threaten the very nature of private and parochial schools. It makes them less private and less parochial.11

Chester Finn Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, declared that government controls were inevitable: "There is no doubt in my mind that there will be some new regulations with voucher plans."12

If the highest public school bureaucrats in the nation recognize the loss of freedom government funding brings to private education, how can we deny it?

The experience of other nations

Other nations have experienced the effects of government funding. Private education has almost completely disappeared overseas.

For example, in Australia, over a period of 10 years, private school and Christian schools took more and more government funds. The regulations gradually increased until today the differences between public schools and private schools have become non-existent. Home schooling is the last bastion of educational freedom in Australia.

In South Africa, the 1996 National Education Act officially transformed all publicly funded private schools into public schools.13

In Alberta, Canada, home schoolers enjoyed more liberty than almost any of the other provinces. Then several years ago, legislation was passed giving home schoolers $500 per child in government funds. The very next year, one of the most restrictive legislative bills was passed, implementing regulations for home schoolers. When asked why, the Minister of Education stated that if they were giving money to home schoolers, they had to know who they are and have certain standards. These regulations apply to all home schoolers--not only those who receive the government funding.

Many European countries have experienced similar scenarios with government-funded private schools.

Charter schools increase government spending

Charter school proponents claim that the resulting competition between educational providers will drive education costs down, while increasing the quality of education offered.

Charter schools do not charge tuition, but are funded according to their enrollment. Charter school students may be eligible for both state and federal funding. There are over 8 million children who do not attend public schools in this country. If these children suddenly began using money from the state's treasury for their schooling, taxes would have to be raised to generate the additional revenue. It is highly unlikely that public schools would reduce their budgets in order to provide funds for private schools. Today, non-public school parents are being double taxed--they pay tuition for both public school children and their own children. With virtual charter schools, these parents would be triple taxed. In addition to footing the bill for their own children's tuition, they would pay for the public school students and the students participating in charter schools.

According to Eddy Jeans, Finance Director at the Alaska Department of Education, Galena School District received $15,020,053 in state funds for fiscal year 2000. Of this amount, $14,093,136, or $4,104 per pupil, was received for the 3,434 students in IDEA. The balance of the funds in the amount of $926,917 was intended for the 226 students who receive classroom instruction as regular on-site students.14

Each student enrolled in IDEA receives an allotment averaging $1,600 per year to cover curriculum and related expenses. Considering the $4,104 per pupil received from the state, Galena School District enjoys a gross profit of over $2,500 per pupil in IDEA for a total of $8,585,000 for fiscal year 2000. What amount of this profit is reduced by IDEA administrative expenses is unknown, but there is no question that this is a moneymaking enterprise for Galena School District.15

In Texas, a two-year pilot virtual charter school is being established. Texas Virtual Charter School would receive the tax dollars as a subcontractor to Houston Gateway Academy, a charter school. This home school component of Gateway Academy will serve students in kindergarten, first and second grades. By September 26, 2001, the virtual charter school had so far enrolled about 300 in central and southeast Texas, including Houston and Austin. The virtual charter school could receive $5,000 for each home schooled student.16

Yet research has found the median cost for a home school program is only about $400.17 This sounds like a major waste of our tax dollars.

Let's choose freedom

Government schools are failing in many places. They are not providing students with the moral training necessary in any society, and students continue to fall short of academic standards. Why would home school parents wish to support this system by accepting funding to participate in it?

In spite of the enticements offered by charter schools, parents should realize that charter school programs are simply creating little public schools in our homes. The teaching may take place in a private home, but the government is pulling the strings.

The soul of home schooling has its foundation built on the incredible sacrifices of many parents who risked all in order to win the right to be free from suffocating government control and to be free to teach their children according to God's ways and in obedience to His commands. God honors those who honor Him and who trust in His sovereign love and power.

We do not need the government's "free" money. The price is too high.