Charter Schools: The Battle for the Soul of Homeschooling
By Chris Klicka
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #43, 2001.
Charter schools: What are they? Are they beneficial or harmful to homeschooling? Hear the opinions of a homeschooling legal expert.
It seems 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!" They believe it is the best of both worlds. Charter schools along with educational vouchers appear to be harmless since parents are only reacquiring their tax money.
Is it really that simple? Let's look at charter schools and vouchers a little closer, from the perspective of freedom - not from the perspective of what "freebies" we can receive from the government.
I am afraid the soul of the homeschooling movement is at stake. How we respond to charter schools and vouchers will determine the extent homeschooling remains free from government controls in the future.
To accurately understand this issue, we must first define the terms.
What Are Vouchers and Charter Schools?
Government educational vouchers constitute a legislatively specified amount of government money given to parents to spend on their child's education expenses. The money often can be used for public or private education. At present, there are only a handful of state government voucher programs for education in existence. Most of them have been struck down by the courts. No federal educational voucher program exists . . . yet.
Supporters of government educational vouchers summarize the benefits this way. Vouchers create competition, giving private education programs an "even playing field" when competing with government funded public schools. This, they say, will improve the quality of all education programs. Besides, it is the parents' money in the first place and they are merely getting their tax dollars back.
A much more common educational program is the charter school. Charter schools are a type of public schools. The school is established by a "charter" that lists the school's mission, educational program, and methods of assessment. Charter schools answer to the state or local school board for accessing the students and verifying academic progress. They are completely government funded.
Some charter schools operate as an institutional school, others as an "on-line" school or "cyber school," and still others operate as a homeschool program.
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 than 500,000 pupils enrolled in these schools.
Supporters of charter schools claim that creating competition in the educational market will result in more options and a higher quality of education. The idea is that if public charter schools draw enough students away from the 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 of schooling that allows creative approaches to teaching, freed from the strict rules and regulation of the public school system. They point out that charter schools provide a protective environment like a smaller "private" school or home environment - where students can pursue their own styles of learning.
An increasing number of homeschoolers are examining the possibility of enrolling full-time or part-time in "cyber schools" or homeschool programs operated by these public charter schools or directly by regular public schools. Charter schools operate on taxpayer dollars, so there is virtually no cost for those enrolled. Other advantages cited by homeschoolers to participation in a charter school are the accredited high school diploma, free computer, Internet access, software, and support by certified teachers.
With government vouchers and public charter schools and public schools offering all of these benefits, we at the Home School Legal Defense Association often are asked why we would oppose such excellent educational options.
Freedom is the Answer
Freedom is the answer. Freedom, I believe, is more important than "freebies."
Over the last 16 years, I have worked at the Home School Legal Defense Association helping to win the right of families to homeschool with minimal regulations. Many of these battles took place in the courts and legislatures throughout the country. I saw first-hand the tremendous sacrifices and risks parents took to follow God's leading to train their children at home. These families faced fines, jail, and even the threat of the state taking their children away. These families held on to their convictions and God honored them in an incredible way. After 15 years of litigation and legislative battles, we won the right to homeschool in all 50 states.
Of course, the battle to maintain this freedom continues as school officials harass homeschool families with illegal requirements and teacher's unions and other professional education organizations have legislation introduced to restrict homeschool freedoms. A survey of over 1000 public school executives by the American School Board Journal in February 1997 found 71 percent did not believe homeschoolers were regulated enough! 95 percent of the superintendents and principals believed anything is better than homeschooling. The National Education Association passes a resolution each year condemning homeschooling and calling for legislation to require homeschools to be taught by certified teachers and have their curriculum approved by the state. The prejudices against homeschooling remain.
But our hard-fought freedom remains intact for now. Private homeschooling is thriving, with no help from the government. The studies all show homeschoolers are academically above average from the elementary level all the way through college. Homeschoolers have earned the right to be left alone.
All of this success has been achieved without the government's money. We have had tremendous success before the Congress and the state legislatures because we are not asking for a handout but simply to be left alone.
This liberty is at risk if homeschoolers begin crawling back to the government to drink from the public trough. This is the same government that once heavily restricted or prohibited homeschooling. We will become dependent on government money and as the controls are added, we will not be able to break free.
As homeschoolers "yoke" together with the public schools through charter school programs and cyber schools, the public schools and the state will once again dictate to us our curriculum, teacher qualifications, and methods.
This is not idle conjecture. It is already happening.
Government Homeschooling in Alaska
It is important to remember the old and true adage: "There is no such thing as a free government service." Government money always comes with government 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 types of regulations over parents who receive funding will depend on the type of government in power. The most common concern for the government is that the children learn certain concepts and progress academically.
Charter schools are accountable to the state or local school authorities. In addition to dictating the curriculum and teaching styles, they can impose requirements on the parents far beyond that which is required by state homeschool laws, in order to assure that the parents are teaching the children "appropriately."
The Alaskan government program is typical of many charter school homeschool programs.
On June 4, 1997, Alaska enacted the best homeschool 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.
Despite having more freedom than any other state, a majority of homeschooling families are choosing to enroll their children in a public school program known as Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA). Interestingly, this statewide program of correspondence study from the Galena School District was begun in June of 1997, just at the time that the new homeschool law was enacted. According to the information disseminated by Galena School District, the desire of the public school officials is "to provide educational, emotional, intellectual, and financial support to those who would like to work in partnership with a public school district."
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. (Ironically, one of the reasons most often given by parents who have decided to teach their children at home is that they object to the atheistic content of public school curricula.)
I have talked to some parents who tell me the various ways they circumvent this but still use the state government's money to buy Christian text books. So already dependence on government money is encouraging people to lie!
Additionally, students in grades 4, 8, and 11 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 any assessment mandated by the Alaska State Department of Education of public school students in grades 5, 7, and 10. As a further evaluation of the student, each parent must report to Galena School District the progress of all students each semester. High school students are required to submit to a yearly interview with a representative from IDEA in order to establish a transcript.
The "freebies" are not so free after all. The price is actually too high. The price is a gradual but steady loss of freedom, control, and independence.
Homeschooling in Name Only
Despite all of the attractions for homeschoolers, charter schools are supporting homeschooling in name only. Parents who enroll their children in charter schools are creating small public schools in their home.
As seen in the Alaska example above, most charter schools will not allow funding to be used to purchase material that is religious in content. Thus, parents that would normally incorporate their faith into their teaching curriculum will only be able to do so at an extra expense to themselves.
Last week, I talked to a Christian lady who is a teacher in a large charter school program in Colorado. She said many Christian families are using the program and enrolling their children in the charter school. I asked her if the teachers can teach the Bible. She said, "No but we can teach virtues." I asked if she was allowed to teach the children about salvation and she said, "We are not supposed to." If you cannot teach the Bible and cannot teach your children about Jesus, what is the point of Christian education?
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an educational voucher program has been operating for several years. It 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 of the requirements even prohibit the Christian school from mandating that these children with vouchers attend chapel or Bible class!
Is this compromise worth it? If we turn our back on Jesus Christ and His command to proclaim the gospel simply for government money, how much longer will God withhold His judgment?
Homeschool 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 child. 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 homeschooler who enroll in charter schools or public school programs for homeschooling.
With little power in choosing the curriculum, parents in charter schools also face limited ability to incorporate creative teaching methods. The specific curriculum requires 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 charter school complain of this very thing. As one California homeschooler shared:
"Having been in a car accident and having been limited in my physical capabilities, I found myself not able to get my kids out as much as I felt they needed. Home educating independently for three 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 three 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 field trips.
"The next time we met, I took the kid's 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. I had gotten so used to living my own life and had forgotten just how involved the government is in the lives of families enrolled in public schools.
"Make no doubt about it, a charter school is a public school . . . it's homeschooling 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 and that we are incapable of educating our own children.
"The principal was very eager to work with me, bending the many rules. I appreciated her efforts greatly. However, I found that we were . . . forced to learn in the 'one size fits all' methods of the schools, which I desperately avoid. It's my opinion also that charter schools try very hard to embrace all philosophies of home education; however, they are still run by government agents paid to spy on us, and to dictate our parenting and educational skills. They still work under the framework of the 'one size fits all' mind set, and some teachers forcefully dictate (assign) the work. We found ourselves so consumed in getting the work done that my children were not retaining any of the subjects. It was simply a race to get it done and turned in, stereotypical of schools. To me, academic work should be savored to allow them to retain it and enjoy it.
"In a charter school we found that the kids are still categorized by age; they maintained their institutional mindset. 'You're this age, in this grade, you should be doing this or that.' 'You're in fifth grade, oh you need to be studying American history, ancient history's next year.' I found this train of thought to be very limiting. Charter schools are still public schools, which are basically training kids to do well on standardized tests. Their first priority is their precious ADA; they want their $4,000 per child. Secondly, they still program the children for taking standardized tests to get good results, typical of schools."
This member went on to share that when she 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 school.
Is government money worth it? Are not these the type of controls we cast off with much sacrifice and risk? Are we willing forge new chains to limit our liberty?
Homeschool 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 from the philosophy of many of the former Federal secretaries of education, their statements are valuable since they demonstrate the intent behind government funding of private education. Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education under George 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 . . ."
Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, 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 . . .
[Vouchers] threaten the very nature of private and parochial schools. It makes them less private and less parochial.
Chester Finn Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, declared how government controls were inevitable:
"There is no doubt in my mind that there will be some new regulations with voucher plans."
If the highest public school bureaucrats in the nation recognize that government-funded private education means loss of freedom, 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.
For example, in Australia, over 10 years, private school and Christian schools took more and more government funds. The regulations gradually increased until the difference between public schools and private schools is non-existent. Homeschooling in Australia is the last bastion of educational freedom.
In South Africa, in 1996 their new National Education Act was passed that officially transformed all publically funded private schools into public schools.
In Alberta, Canadian homeschoolers enjoyed more liberty than almost all of the other provinces. Then several years ago, legislation was passed giving homeschoolers $500 per child in government funds. The very next year, one of the most regulatory legislative bills was passed, implementing restrictions on homeschoolers. When asked why, the Minister of Education stated that if they were giving money to homeschoolers they had to know who they are and have certain standards. These regulations apply to all homeschoolers - not only those who receive the government funding.
Many European countries have experienced similar scenarios.
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 state and federal funding. There are over 5.5 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 vouchers, 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.
Alaska's IDEA program serves as a good example of the increase in government spending. 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.
Each student enrolled in IDEA receives an annual allotment averaging $1,600 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.
Let's Choose Freedom
Government schools are failing everywhere. They are not providing students with the moral training necessary in any society, and students continue to fall short of academic standards. Why would homeschool 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 private home, but the government is pulling the strings.
The soul of homeschooling 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. 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.