Jennifer Terman

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May 3, 2013
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Uneven playing field? Nevada County charter school officials outline differences

The rise in charter school popularity is largely due to the choices they offer to parents, as well as the perceived benefits a school receives by going the charter route, as far as access to funding from increased enrollment and a flexibility of curriculum and materials.

But such flexibility between charter and traditional schools has been perceived as unfair by some traditional school administrators.

“They don’t have as many laws and rules to follow and have created a bit of an uneven playing field,” said Nevada Union High School Principal Mike Blake. “The public schools have a tough time competing because resources are now going to the charter. We have to compete with a different set of rules with fewer resources.”

Britta Skavdahl, superintendent of Pleasant Ridge Union School District, agreed.

“I find it a little bit troubling that charters offer money to parents for enrichment activities as opposed to providing them,” she said. “I support the idea of choice, but I think that all educational agencies should be able to play by the same rules.”

The declining enrollment in local traditional schools can be partly contributed to charter schools, but not entirely, said Skavdahl.

“You have to look at the fact that Nevada County has a much older population, that people have had to move out of state to seek employment opportunities,” Skavdahl said.

The enrollment numbers still indicate, however, that charter school enrollment is increasing, so students still live in the county. And it’s up to traditional schools to stay competitive.

“Customers will come if the product is high quality,” said Skavdahl.

Finding flexibility

Charter students do not need to request an interdistrict transfer from their home district and can choose any charter school.

Susan Barry, superintendent of Union Hill, which is in the process of expanding its own charter, seeks to retain more students by becoming a charter district.

“It’s kind of multilevel as to why we decided to become charter, but certainly to give parents the opportunity to come to Union Hill,” Barry said.

In April 2011, Grass Valley School District Superintendent Eric Fredrickson encouraged the end of an interdistrict transfer agreement with Union Hill — an agreement he had initiated while previously serving as superintendent there. The decision, approved by the board, was meant to protect Grass Valley School District’s enrollment, he said.

Chicago Park School began offering an accompanying charter program two years ago to allow outside-the-district students to attend, said Dan Zeisler, that district’s superintendent.

“There are a certain number of kids who would not be eligible to come to Chicago Park without a charter, who came from Grass Valley because the district wouldn’t allow a transfer,” Zeisler said, adding that all the charter students are those who would have required an interdistrict transfer.

“I feel like they are trying to shove (the schools) down our throats by forcing us to stay in their district if we can’t go to a charter,” said Monique Bluvas, a parent of a prospective kindergartner.

Charter schools are also given more instructional and curricular flexibility, though they are still bound by state standards, another reason Union Hill School District is trying to make its school all charter.

“In going charter. You have some flexibility with your instructional minutes. Teachers have the opportunity to network on a regular basis, and we are looking at online materials that are not necessarily state-adopted but that might better meet the learning needs of the students,” Barry said.

The flexibility in teaching, for example offering individualized learning, also allows teachers to work more effectively, said Heather Buck, Forest Charter educational specialist, who also worked in traditional schools.

“I taught writing (at a traditional school) and had 32 students, mixed Spanish and English speakers, and though my kids were really great, I could really only get to 15 students,” Buck said. “There’s only so much you can do with a large group of children.”

Buck said she has also seen how charters are able to help students with specific learning needs when one of her students, who failed math multiple times, was never put in her appropriate grade level.

“She failed Algebra A multiple times and I was scratching my head thinking, ‘Why didn’t they assess her?’ and realized she was at about a third-grade level of math,” Buck said. “Many regular schools are not equipped and don’t have a class that goes as low as some of these struggling students need. They plunk them in their lowest class, and you can imagine how a student feels after failing a math class.”

Traditional school teachers say focusing on the academic standards is a tested and proven approach.

“We have high standards,” said Leslie Wallace, an Alta Sierra elementary school teacher of 25 years. “We have kids getting into (UC) Davis medical school; so out of there come good kids with a good, strong foundation.”

Though charter schools have more flexibility, they are still not a perfect system, said Treece McCutcheon, a first-grade teacher at Cottage Hill.

“Standards may not be as strictly addressed, leaving gaps in a child’s knowledge,” McCutcheon said in an email. “There may not be a diverse group of students, either. I have heard several times from charter school teachers that their students are typically two different types — high-functioning and those with behavior issues in public school.

“Charter schools have less restrictions on their funding, which means funds may be used at the discretion of individuals,” McCutcheon continued. “Typical public schools like Cottage Hill have strict restrictions and accountability for all funds. Competition can be healthy, but not when it is two systems competing for limited funds and their rules are not the same.”

Administrative disparity

Another difference between charter and traditional schools is the setup of contracts and participation in unions, which many charters avoid.

Part of belonging to a union is tenure, a form of job protection where a teacher can only be dismissed with just cause, said Mike Blake.

“The misconception is teachers have a God-given right when they receive tenure, that they’re untouchable, and the reality is that any teacher can be fired,” Blake said.

“However, there is due process, and that is built as a protection for the staff member from unjust release. It’s a very time-consuming process. It’s a matter of, is it to the point where you’re willing and able to dedicate that amount of time and resources to actually going through the process.”

The lack of unions is not perceived to be a problem by some teachers and administrators, as effective teaching is their form of job protection, said Caleb Buckley, director of Yuba River Charter.

“We don’t have a teacher’s union and collective bargaining unit. Every teacher is on a one-year contract,” Buckley said. “I’ve hired people who have come from union districts and in general, they’ve been very happy here because all they have to do is an excellent job.”

Though teachers may have more job protection with union membership, some prefer its exclusion.

Buck, the educational specialist at Forest Charter, said she saw tenure secure the position of an ineffective teacher at a previous school, which made her own job and those of other colleagues more difficult.

“The unions have a place, but there are all types of documentation to keep teachers in place who should not be teachers,” Buck said. “I worked in a school and we had one first-grade teacher who was ineffective, and every year, kids in the other grades learned to read. You could track all those students up to second, third, or fourth grade who were struggling and they all had the same teacher.”

Schools without unions are also able to define their salaries and contracts with more flexibility, some argued.

“Even in the height of the economic crisis, we did not have to lay off teachers,” said Bruce Herring, director of Bitney College Prep. “We simply scaled back positions to three-quarters time and everyone took a cut in pay.”

But such flexibility often comes at a price for some teachers, as charter schools independent of districts typically pay less.

“In our school, I would say in the first five years we are about the same (in pay levels),” Buckley said. “The most experienced teachers here don’t make as much money as they would in traditional districts, so the top tends to be a lot higher (at traditional public schools).”

The reason for the salary discrepancy is due to differences in funding between independent charters, which only receive funding for average daily attendance, or enrollment, and traditional schools, which receive average daily attendance or basic aid, as well as funds through property taxes, and qualify for categorical funds, as well.

“If you were a traditional district, you’d be getting transportation money and Title I low-income money, a lunch program … so they have about 24 different categories where they are getting little bits of money and we just get one lump sum,” Buckley said. “And if the local districts are basic aid, then they are able to keep their tax money and the funding is even higher.”

Charters are not bound to state-approved instructional materials, which the state pays for, or a geographical area, and so do not receive property taxes like traditional schools unless they are a part of a sponsored agency, said Donna Fitting, Nevada County associate superintendent of business services.

Charters do, however receive an unrestricted block grant of about $400 to compensate, though the amount of funding remains unequal, she said.

“The fact remains — (charters) do get less money at start-up, but they are not bound to some of the statutory requirements (of traditional schools),” Fitting said.

Charter schools independent of a larger school district are also responsible for finding their own facilities to rent, something that puts charters at a fundamental funding disadvantage, said Herring.

“We’re like a business. We have to lease from either a school district or through a commercial lease,” Herring said. “The rate we pay (in a lease agreement) is more than what traditional school districts pay because they have facilities as part of their allotment from the state, which is usually below market.”

Nevada City School of the Arts administrators said they rely on donations to cover their more than $200,000 rent expense and without those donations, the school would not exist.

“We can’t, of course, ask for tuition, but we do let parents know of our need,” said School Development Coordinator Janice Bedayn. “By not providing a facility, the state is cutting off one of our legs.”

Each year the school hosts a large donation day, which pays for roughly half the rent.

“We would love to give the $140,000 donated to us for curricular enhancement or to pay staff more, since they are paid less than traditional school teachers,” Bedayn said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a local control funding formula that would provide equal funding for traditional and public schools, but it is believed by many educators that such a measure likely won’t pass.

“For some reason that probably goes back decades, many (politicians) are still more beholden to teachers unions and traditional school districts (but) I think eventually it will happen,” Herring said.

“I think it’s inevitable, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email or call 530-477-4230.

“Charter schools have less restrictions on their funding, which means funds may be used at the discretion of individuals,”

—TREECE McCutcheon,
Cottage Hill teacher

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The Union Updated Sep 26, 2013 12:37AM Published May 6, 2013 05:06PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.