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A Question of Choice

news1-1With the new school year comes a renewed debate over the future of charter school education

Crimson red banners and golden pennants from universities are the first things visitors notice upon entering Ceiba College Prep.

The second are the children themselves—recently returned from summer vacation, they animatedly slap fly swatters at a whiteboard in a geometry game, spout facts from an article about Asperger’s syndrome, and bow their heads in concentration to solve a math problem. In every classroom, a poster reads, “So much to learn. So little time.”

Ceiba, a nonprofit charter school in Watsonville with nearly 400 students spread across five grade levels, is one of 12 charter schools established in Santa Cruz County since state lawmakers passed the Charter Schools Act 20 years ago. Enrollment at these schools has increased over the past five years, from 2,891 students in 11 schools in the 2006-07 school year, to close to 5,000 in 12 schools in the 2011-12 academic year. Statewide, there are more than 412,000 students currently enrolled in charter schools, with an estimated 36,000 on waiting lists. There are 982 charters in California today, compared to 574 in the year 2006-07.

These numbers come during a time marked by financial cutbacks to California public schools, combined with what some researchers say is an already lamentable national education system. A survey of K-12 students published in July by the Center for American Progress found that many of them do not feel challenged by their academic workload.

Last winter, the structure and finances of the charter school were spotlighted in Santa Cruz when 90 families formed the Maria Montessori Charter School Families (MMCSF), a group spearheading the formation of a Montessori charter school. Their petition sparked a debate still being discussed today about what choices local families should have in how and where their children learn.

Although the Santa Cruz Montessori charter school proposal has been altered in favor of an alternative Montessori operating within Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS), waitlists for charters around the county and state continue to grow. The question of whether more schools will open to accommodate what proponents say is a growing demand is being met with weariness by some charter school opponents and school districts that are already strapped for cash. And this has people like Ceiba Chief of Schools and co-founder J Zac Stein exasperated.

“There’s a lot of tension, [but] we just want to serve kids,” says Stein. “This should be beyond politics.”

A charter school is a public school that can be created by a group of parents, teachers or members of the community after receiving approval from a school district board. Although a charter operates within a particular district, it is not necessarily under district control, depending on a charter’s status as an independent or dependent, district-run charter.

A Montessori curriculum is marked by “specially designed, manipulative ‘materials for development’ that invite children to engage in learning activities of their own individual choice,” according to the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association. There are more than 4,000 Montessori-based private schools and 200 public Montessori schools in the United States.

“Charters are by design different from each other, but one of the many goals is to try to incubate new ideas and challenge the status quo on behalf of kids,” Stein says.

The opportunity to do just that wooed assistant principal Christal Moore to Ceiba from Radcliff Elementary in Watsonville.

“[At charter schools] there is more freedom to modify your lessons to your actual students rather than just doing the same lesson for everyone,” Moore says.

Aurora Torres, a Watsonville mother of four who has a 10th grader and an eighth-grader at Ceiba, says she chose a charter school because she was concerned about finding the most ideal learning environment for her eldest child.

“I was worried about all the problems in the schools with gangs [and] drugs,” says Torres in Spanish, through a translator.

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), attributes higher enrollment numbers to a growing awareness and approval of charters statewide.

“[The parents] know their child very well and they’ve looked at the options being provided by the traditional system and they realize the traditional system is not giving them what they want,” Wallace says.

SCCS Superintendent Gary Bloom, however, does not think higher enrollment is indicative of increasing demand, and believes some parents may choose a charter school for their child on false pretenses.

“When you put choices out there, some folks take those choices,” Bloom says. “There are misconceptions in the community, some of which are spread … around the track record, effectiveness and safety of public schools.”

While Bloom believes that children aren’t being challenged enough in school, he says this does not mean charters are necessarily doing a better job of educating, particularly since “some schools … select students that are highly likely to be successful.”

Wallace contends that it is impossible for charters to handpick students because of the mandated lottery system.

“It is a criticism that comes from protectors of the status quo who either haven’t been to many charter schools or just want to repeat criticisms,” he says.

Moore says the fact that many of Ceiba’s students come from less privileged backgrounds presents a counterargument to Bloom’s statement. Of the incoming sixth graders from 2008-09 to 2010-11, 70 percent scored below grade proficiency in math and 75 percent in English Language Arts, a trend which continues today, according to Ceiba CEO Tom Brown.

“We have just as many struggles [as traditional public schools]; we just have less students so we can deal with it better,” Moore adds.

At the crux of the charter school debate is the funding of these alternative public schools, particularly given the financial state of local school districts. Michael Watkins, the superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, recently stated in an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel that SCCS may not be able to balance its budget within the next two years. The district will be in further jeopardy if Proposition 30, the temporary tax increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, does not pass this November. It would mean cutting the school year by five days—thereby furloughing teachers—and a reduction of nearly $3 million.

Ceiba receives 35 percent less state funding than public schools in the district, a number that Wallace says is indicative of a statewide situation.

“Different communities have different levels of funding disparity … [but] there’s no disagreement that charter schools secure less funding,” he says.

Wallace adds that there’s a “wide variance” in how charter schools are funded outside of state dollars, depending on the amount of local facilities bonds in a particular charter’s operating district. In the case of Ceiba, Stein says that they “don’t make up that funding gap.”

Despite receiving less funding from the state, Bloom says that charter schools are still a drain on finances and facilities. He points to the fact that the proposed Santa Cruz Montessori charter school would have taken $6,000 per student in state dollars away from the four other SCCS elementary schools.

“When you have a charter school attempting to set up shop on your turf and siphon resources away from your district, it can be very tough,” he says.

When it comes to the differences between charters and traditional public schools, Stein says that both platforms strive to provide an environment where children succeed, and that working toward this mission should be the primary focus.

“There is no magic bullet that is going to fix public education or transform our school environment,” Stein says. “It is having people show up, believe in kids and do whatever it takes to see them succeed.”

While Bloom hopes the quality of public education improves in Santa Cruz County, he does not believe it will mean making room for the growth of charter schools.

“Santa Cruz County is a diverse county, and we should build on the great public schools we already have,” he says.

Moore, however, sees a future in which charter schools are an abundant part of the public education landscape.

“Across the state it’s moving in the direction of charter schools, because then parents can at least have the chance for choice,” she says. 

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