Most of us know the legend: German-born physicist Albert Einstein struggled with the regimented curriculum in his elementary school, yet later proved to be one of the world’s great scientific minds. He would be “labeled dull, dyslexic, even autistic or schizophrenic by a considerable number of today’s experts,” according to a biography in the Albert Einstein Archives.
It’s an old story, but one worth pondering as we debate the issue of school choice, especially those programs for kids who — for one reason or another — have trouble thriving in the traditional bricks-and-mortar school system.
That issue is front and center in Orange County, as the Anaheim Elementary School District and the Anaheim Union High School District pressure the county Board of Education to shut down the growing Epic Charter School, which provides online programs. Charters are publicly funded schools that are freed from many constraints of traditional schools, and are therefore able to offer a more innovative education approach.
Because they are publicly funded, they require approval from the local school district. The elementary district rejected Epic’s application, arguing that it offered “an unsound educational program.” The school appealed the decision to the county board, which gave it a 4-1 approval. Anaheim school officials asked it to reconsider that approval. County education officials are now poring over Epic’s records.
As a recent Orange County Register article explained, the high school district was “concerned that Epic was drawing their students.” That explanation offers a hint of what might be happening here. It’s a long way from claiming an “unsound” curriculum to worrying about parents taking their kids — and their Average Daily Attendance dollars — with them to a different school.
One county trustee calls this an anti-charter “witch hunt.” Anaheim school officials obviously deny any such thing. They claim their concern is about protecting children from an educational regimen with deficiencies. They told the Register they aren’t against charter schools in general. But a look at the California Department of Education website shows the Anaheim elementary district has authorized only one charter school in 24 years, and the high school district has never approved a charter school.
“School districts always come up with, ‘Well, this charter has an unsound educational program,’” said Tanja MeCey, a Sacramento-based coalition manager for California Parents for Public Virtual Education. “You want to know what this is all about?” She pointed toward the news article showing that Epic has already enrolled 85 students and plans to have 10 times that number enrolled by 2021. That means millions of dollars flow out of school budgets. “It’s all about the money,” she added.
The Anaheim districts raise two concerns, both of which seem tenuous. First, they point to an affiliate of Epic in Oklahoma, which has been under investigation by state authorities. Anaheim officials point to other criticisms from the Sooner State. An investigation doesn’t impute any problems or wrongdoing. And this involves an affiliate, not the local online school.
The most absurd allegation, from Anaheim Union Superintendent Mike Matsuda, is that Epic is involved in “predatory marketing” because it offers students $1,500 worth of school supplies and payments for extracurricular activities. My kids were involved in band, soccer, horseback riding, 4H Club and swimming. These are crucial parts of the educational experience, especially for students who receive the bulk of their learning via computer. Other charters offer similar benefits.
Online education isn’t for everyone, but it’s a crucial alternative for children who don’t fit the mold. For instance, it’s common for kids who are bullied, for disabled kids or those with special needs. It’s also a great option for highly advanced students — perhaps even the next Einstein — who can’t take the slow pace of the traditional school curriculum. For those who can’t keep up, they get to repeat the lessons until they understand them.
Online charters have been around for two decades. Anyone who thinks they are about plopping one’s kids in front of the computer and letting the computer do the work are way out of line. Parents I’ve talked to say it takes a lot more parental involvement than just sending your child off to the local public school. Think of it as a cross between homeschooling and public schools. Certified teachers oversee the process, there are get-togethers and lots of expert help for homework and anything else.
Nevertheless, there are union-backed legislative efforts to hobble these schools. The latest came last summer. Assembly Bill 1084 would have prohibited online charters from being owned or run by a for-profit entity. It was shelved, but something similar might return.
Charter schools are funded by taxpayers, so they should be subject to oversight. But oversight should be driven by what’s best for the children, not what’s best for teachers’ unions and public-school budgets. Not every one of these kids who attend online charters will turn out to be the next Einstein, but they deserve the opportunity to reach their potential.
Image by Asmus Koefoed