No class operation, California’s radical Charter School experiment
Horizon Instructional Systems is one of the largest charter schools in the country. So what does an average classroom look like? Well, sort of like your living room.
Belinda Roloff was worried about her son. It wasn’t that his Sacramento-area public junior high school was bad, it was a question more of attitudes and values. She respected his teachers’ abilities, but the school’s cultural perspective bothered her. It seemed to her that homosexuality was promoted as a viable lifestyle, something she found in conflict with her religious beliefs. And she worried about sex and drugs, that 15-year-old Jonathan may be vulnerable to bad influences. Then she heard about Horizon Instructional Systems.
Horizon, a public charter school, would support her in teaching her son at home, and not only would it be free, Horizon would provide her with everything she needed—textbooks, tutoring, a computer, Internet access, even paper and pencils. She could select from a bounty of teaching aids and services, and no one would tell her what to teach or how to teach it. She could even provide the kind of moral and religious instruction that would be considered unconstitutional in a regular school.
Roloff quickly signed her son up, enrolling him in what would become the nation’s largest charter school, with as many as 3,300 students. She went with Horizon because “I wanted the resources—and the guidance and the help.”
A charter school is freed from many regulations that govern other schools in exchange for agreeing to a contract or “charter” that specifies the school’s goals. Nationwide, charter schools are supposed to be working, fully accountable laboratories in school reform. California’s definitive contribution to the movement may be schools like Horizon—which have no set curriculum or classroom buildings.
“Right now it’s difficult to find these schools outside California,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, an avowedly pro-charter, school-reform advocacy organization. In reviewing her national directory of charter schools, Allen was hard-pressed to identify more than a handful of comparable schools. “Most other states require a physical place for kids to show up.”
In California, approximately one third of the 300 operating charter schools specialize in “off-site” students.
These “independent-study” charters have become a state-funded haven for families who don’t want their children in traditional brick-and-mortar schools for any reason—whether because the regular school is too hard, too easy or just too crowded or impersonal. These schools have especially found a clientele among religious families who are uneasy with the state’s curriculum or the effects of peer pressure.
For each student enrolled for a full year of attendance, the state pays a charter school at least $4,000. The school then covers administrative and instructional costs. Unlike traditional schools, home-school charters don’t have the expense of campuses, cafeteria services and student busing, among other things. They can also cut costs by paying teachers by the student or by the hour, often at less than union-negotiated wages. With all those savings, all of a sudden, you have thousands of dollars to redistribute. Ultimately, the money can be invested in the student, skimmed off by the sponsoring school district or even inserted directly into the charter operator’s pocket.
Although auditing standards have been tightened, exactly what happens to these funds is hard to track, because charter schools have not been held to public-records laws. And no official statewide effort is in place to provide quality control or regular oversight.
The state’s experiment with charter schools, established by legislation passed in 1992 and modified several times since, suggests once again that, in education, new is not necessarily improved. Most of the cumbersome rules of the education code exist for a reason, and freedom from these rules does not automatically make for a better school. Still, charter schools are unquestionably the latest flavor-of-the-month in education reform. Both major-party presidential candidates praised them as the wave of the future. Many educators, too, have hopped on the bandwagon, with an ardor reminiscent of that once spent on behalf of past presumed breakthroughs such as whole-language instruction, bilingual education or new math.
California is one of 36 states that permit charter schools. The state’s current stable of charters, which last year served about 103,000 of the state’s 5.95 million students, is ever increasing, with the state Education Department certifying new charter schools at a rate of about 10 a month.
To date, charter schools have not proved a panacea for a troubled education system. They cannot, for example, claim greater success than traditional schools in raising student test scores. Nor have traditional schools been scared straight as a result of the competition. For the most part, the education establishment has ignored charters, except when a scandal arises that spurs new calls to rein them in. But charters have proved popular with the families that choose to use them, underscoring that the growing popularity of school choice trumps even test scores or other tangible proofs of success.
In California, two operations, Horizon and a company called the one2one Learning Foundation, have become the home-school charter equivalents of the Coke and Pepsi corporations—loaded with business savvy, marketing skills and a product that slakes a thirst for something different. Both started in the hinterlands north and east of Sacramento. Horizon Instructional Systems began in the bedroom community of Lincoln; one2one’s first school, Sierra Summit Academy, was founded by an out-of-state company in Sierra City, a remote mountain hamlet. Both schools evolved into statewide charter “chains.”
The Roloffs feel they are reaping real benefit from Horizon. In his traditional school, Jonathan Roloff, now 18, had fallen well behind in schoolwork because of a persisting case of pleurisy. And he wasn’t coping well with teen pressures, anyway. Neither of Jonathan’s older siblings had thrived in a traditional high school.
“I didn’t want one more kid to go through that,” said Roloff. “Jonathan wasn’t into drugs, but I could see that he was starting to be influenced. He wasn’t getting his work done. It was a matter of intervention.”
Still, critics have questioned the quality of education that students receive at home from mom or via computer. “Learning is a social activity,” said Terence K. McAteer, the schools superintendent for Nevada County, which borders both Horizon and Sierra Summit. “Learning takes place in more than one modality. You can’t learn just looking at the computer. A child is an audible learner, a kinesthetic learner, and learns in other ways, too. And you don’t get all those modalities from a computer, or from a teacher who comes to you once a month. No one has come up with a system to replace a qualified, hands-on teacher, especially for primary-school kids.”
Randy Gaschler, the 50-year-old founder of Horizon, would consider it an intrusion for his school to mandate to parents how their children should be taught, especially given that parenting itself embodies a constant teaching mission. “My perspective would be that Horizon has absolutely no right or desire to be involved in the decision of what a parent uses to instruct their child,” he wrote in a letter to one critic. “Our school embraces the parent’s right to choose which philosophy best suits their own child. In order to do that, we give up the school’s right to force any one particular philosophy on the student.” He added, “Horizon does not require parents to teach anything or even to teach, only that students learn, nor do we prevent it.”
Gaschler opened for business in August 1993, less than a year after legislation authorizing school districts to sponsor charters took effect. Like a number of other charter schools, Horizon initially used state funds to purchase sectarian materials, including those that openly proselytized or touted the biblical story of creation as scientifically preferable to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Warnings from the state prompted Gaschler to end the practice. He now permits state funds to be used only for legally allowable materials, though nothing would prevent the parent of an enrolled student from teaching creationism without Gaschler’s help.
Any state official who made an early visit to Horizon would have had ample cause for consternation—or at least surprise. The entire physical site of Horizon, with one of the largest enrollments in the state, was one battered double-wide trailer that Horizon shared with an English-as-a-second-language program.
“At the time, the state didn’t provide any money for charter schools to obtain facilities,” Gaschler explained. “This was what the school district gave me to work in. I think the school district was able to get it because it had been condemned.”
Times have changed.
It’s now difficult to drive down a street in diminutive downtown Lincoln, Calif.—oak savannah country, about an hour’s drive northeast of Sacramento—without passing an office space connected to Gaschler’s operation.
Gaschler didn’t invent the home-school public school, but he refined the business model as no one had before, and expanded Horizon in breathtaking fashion, going from 25 students to 600 at the end of his first year, and rising as high as 3,300 students. Now Gaschler has six more charter schools and about 6,000 students spanning the state from the Sierra to the Northern California coast to San Diego County.
When Gaschler decided to expand beyond his first school, he formed Innovative Education Management (IEM), which acts as the “virtual” school district for his charters, which are charged a seven percent management fee. Gaschler said his wage is set at approximately what a superintendent would earn for a school district with the number of students he manages: $107,000.
At Horizon, each student’s annual education allotment, which has risen to $1,400, can be used to purchase textbooks, CD-ROMs, educational games, preserved frogs for dissection, globes, music lessons, musical instruments and special small-group classes in almost any subject that parents want to organize through the school. Parents cannot convert the allotment to cash—that would be illegal under laws passed specifically to prevent that. Any materials purchased remain the property of the school, just like textbooks in a regular school.
The school also loans a computer to most students who request one. Students get high-speed Internet access and online educational materials at no charge, whether they use the school’s computer or their own. Gaschler estimates that 94 percent of his students have a computer at home, about 60 percent of those from the charter school.
And while parents may choose to take charge of the teaching, Horizon assigns a state-certificated “education specialist” to oversee student programs, collect documentation and attendance records, and offer general help and advice. Families consult with the specialist at least once every 20 days, as much as one hour per week. Does a student need private tutoring at home in algebra? That can be arranged, as a charge against the $1,400 instructional fund. So can a small-group class in German, for example, if a group of parents join forces to request it. The local school district doesn’t offer German, noted Gaschler.
Gaschler has created a school district without boundaries, but his non-teaching staff of 140 functions very much like a traditional one in terms of payroll, accounting, risk management and personnel. In fact, he’s hired longtime school-district employees to make it that way, including veteran school-finance administrator Carl Treseder as well as administrative-team manager Dot Wood, who was an attendance clerk at Lincoln High. Most of Gaschler’s cost savings have come from doing away with school buildings and higher-salaried full-time teachers. Teachers are paid per day of student enrollment. It typically works out to about $1,000 per student per year.
Gaschler became an educator later in life. After starring as a 6-foot, 225-pound second-team All American center for the UCLA football team in 1972, Gaschler spent several years as an assistant football coach at UCLA and Southern Illinois University. In 1976, he returned home to Placerville, Calif., near the town of Lincoln, with an invigorated religious conviction: “In college, I was an atheist, because it allowed me to live the way I wanted to live. But that changed when I realized that the Bible could not have been written by human hand,” he recalled.
In 1978, he opened a cabinetmaking shop, after discovering during the construction of his home that he had a talent for it. Then, for seven years, he owned an auto-parts store. He started teaching at age 40. The principal at Lincoln’s high school, knowing Gaschler’s background, offered him a teaching job that included coaching the hapless football team. The following spring, however, funding cuts bumped Gaschler out of that job. The school district, eager to keep a good coach, asked him to teach in a fledgling independent-study program, which was housed in the decrepit double-wide trailer.
Two years later, when a local principal called Gaschler’s attention to the new charter-school law, Gaschler quickly wrote up a petition. At the time, the superintendent of Western Placer Unified was eager to experiment; he would open five of the state’s first 15 charters in the small school system. The fifth was Horizon.
Ultimately, Western Placer had financial incentive to be supportive, because it received as much as 15 percent of all student revenue Gaschler generated. Until legislation limited such percentage deals in 1999, they were common across the state—with the take of the sponsoring district as high as 50 percent. To critics, some charters began to look like moneymaking ventures rather than educational ones.
Superintendent Jeff Bauer had watched with interest the success of Horizon—and the financial rewards it brought to Western Placer Unified. In his Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, budget cuts had eliminated art and music programs and shrunk the custodial staff. And after the district tore down an old high school gym and cafeteria, state construction funds ran dry before the replacement project was complete. So the cafeteria was never rebuilt, and the gym has no locker rooms, which means that students have to walk a block—sometimes through the snow—to change in and out of exercise gear.
Bauer saw Horizon’s booming business and wanted a piece of the action for his own district, so he brought in the one2one Learning Foundation, an organization that began in the Southwest and describes its general mission as serving “as an advocate for financially and socially needy children.” The specific goals of its California affiliate included managing a charter school that would purchase services from partners in the venture. The school, which was named Sierra Summit Academy, quickly became the brain center for an enrollment as high as 2,700 students throughout the state, dwarfing the parent school district, which has about 825 students. The school’s specialty has been long-distance learning via computer, particularly for home-schoolers. For attendance accounting and advice, the school uses a credentialed teacher to make home visits, similar to the Horizon model.
Like Horizon, Sierra Summit Academy has no actual school building. The education program for several thousand students has been coordinated out of a 19-by-29-foot wood-sided building in Sierra City, population 225, a Gold Country town that never quite reached critical mass. A sign advises slow driving because “children and dogs play in the street.” Nearby, the Buckhorn restaurant offers a “full-course dinner” on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 9 p.m. The North Yuba River gurgles in the background.
Even before snow season, Sierra City isn’t easy to get to, but then, Sierra Summit was not a campus, but an ATM. Fifteen percent of all the charter’s revenue would go to Bauer’s school district.
And Sierra-Plumas was well on its way to rosier times. Its budget ballooned from $5 million to more than $12 million, according to Bauer. Even though most of the gain went to one2one, Sierra-Plumas used its 15 percent of the $7 million increase to restore art and music programs, rehire custodians and launch plans for a $9 million construction program.
One2one also opened other virtual campuses in other remote school systems. The company reported revenue of about $13.3 million and assets of $4.1 million for the year ending June 30, 1999, the latest period for which state records are available.
Early on, the rapid growth of Horizon and Sierra Summit attracted scrutiny from state education officials. They quickly rebuked Horizon for providing more goodies to its students than the parent district Western Placer Unified could provide. Regular schools had to get by with a materials budget of about $80 per student, and families got no say in how that money would be spent. The state demanded an end to what it characterized as an inequity. Gaschler reluctantly cut out horseback riding, field trips and the small special-subject classes.
Then, in February 1995, the state took a harder position. If Horizon provided computers to 10 students, the sponsoring school district would have to make home computers available to 30 students, because at that time, the district’s enrollment was three times the size of Horizon’s.
This directive was simply beyond the financial reach of Western Placer. Even worse for Horizon, the state applied its parity requirements retroactively—to enrollment money already received and spent, which threatened the school system with bankruptcy. The state then offered a deal that appeared to seal Horizon’s fate: Shut down Horizon, and the state would not demand its money back. Under this tremendous pressure, the school district revoked Horizon’s charter in March 1995.
But Gaschler was not without allies, including charter-school-friendly Republican lawmakers and a 500-strong army of parents who marched in protest to Sacramento. Gaschler won a stay of execution, which enabled his supporters to challenge the state’s position that all Western Placer students had to receive equal resources.
Of course, uneven resources—and unequal schools—can be found all over the state. Since when did schools in Compton compare to those in Beverly Hills or Palo Alto? Citing various legal justifications, the state Attorney General’s Office, headed by conservative Republican Dan Lungren, sided with Horizon in August 1995. The local school board restored Gaschler’s charter, and he remained in business.
State officials, meanwhile, chastened by the experience, seemed reluctant to take on another charter school in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, future complaints were forwarded to the sponsoring district, which did not satisfy Nevada County schools Superintendent McAteer, who re-christened Sierra Summit as the “dialing for dollars” charter school in a letter to the state Education Department.
McAteer said that it was no accident that one2one and the Sierra-Plumas School District found each other. For one2one, the isolated school district assured a lower level of outside scrutiny. And the added income from a charter school makes a huge difference in such a small school district, which would be loath to kill its cash cow. In addition, one2one got more money per student than it would have in many other school systems, because Sierra-Plumas has to provide an extensive transportation system across mountain roads for a small number of students. One2one’s students got the same per-pupil funding, even though its students got to school by logging on. (In response to this issue, the state Legislature recently leveled out all charter-school funding.)
McAteer also asserted that “there were no adequate controls over how students were learning. Look at the percentage of kids who took the STAR test.”
According to state data, only 42 percent of Sierra Summit’s students took the mandatory state tests in the spring of 1998. In 1999, the number was 49 percent. In 2000, the figure fell to 22 percent. Even the highest of these numbers is atrocious. The much-maligned Los Angeles Unified School District tested 86 percent of its students, according to state figures. Sierra Summit’s test scores last year hovered around national averages, though it’s hard to derive meaning from that, given that the school drew enrollment from a vast geographic area, and that there’s no way to compare how its students fared in previous schools. Similar problems hamper the evaluation of other start-up charters.
“Sierra County schools needed a new gym, and it was funded on the backs of these charter-school students,” concluded McAteer.
Such concerns were quickly dismissed by Bauer, who is a free-market absolutist: “It’s just like a hamburger stand. If you’ve got lousy hamburgers, no one will buy them from you. You’ll also ruin a hamburger if you make too many rules about how to make the hamburger, like telling people how many pickles they have to put on the hamburger.”
Bauer insisted that his charter school has been strictly prime cut, because he invested heavily in curriculum development. “We feel that our program is the best in California.”
But Bauer and one2one opened themselves to criticism when Bauer’s wife took a position with one2one as the Sierra Summit administrator. One2one also hired the wife of one of Bauer’s school-board members for clerical duties. In addition, one2one has some notably unhappy customers, including a small group of families who sued the company, some of its charter schools and affiliated school districts in August.
According to the parents’ lawsuit, “One2one’s students are forced to participate in independent study at their parents’ or guardians’ own expense while one2one collects the state funds that were to be spent on the student’s education.” The suit also accuses one2one of overbilling for the services it does provide: “The software programs one2one uses … are all available online at a cost of zero to $9.95 per month, but one2one charges … $30 to $100 per month in state funds for the same software.”
The complaint then recounts a litany of how parents never received promised textbooks or computers, and how they eventually went out-of-pocket for such materials and were never reimbursed. Moreover, the suit describes a company management that was either unwilling or too disorganized to respond quickly to problems. And it describes supervising teachers who promised regular tutoring and additional help, but showed up only to collect attendance forms for the purpose of claiming state money.
There also have been other problems. The superintendent of a former client school district has claimed that one2one wanted to avoid serving special-education students, a practice that would violate federal law.
And in 1999, Bay Area newspapers reported that one2one enrolled Muslim students whose meeting place was an Islamic school where the students also studied Islam and paid tuition. Public schools, including charters, cannot charge tuition nor permit the teaching of religion. One2one told reporters that students were studying religion only after charter-school hours, but eventually stopped meeting at the mosque “to avoid confusion.”
This history probably played a role in the state’s recent decision to include a one2one school in an ongoing special audit of selected schools. It also influenced legislators to pass laws restricting the operation of “distance-learning” charters to their home county and adjacent counties. Horizon lost 400 Southern California students as a result. But that was nothing compared to the blow sustained by Sierra Summit.
“We went from 2,700 students to 20 students overnight,” said Bauer. “It was the death penalty to us. I try to find an innovative way to get money for our schools, and I get squashed.”
All of a sudden, Sierra-Plumas was of little benefit for one2one, because neither Sierra County nor the adjacent counties have large student populations. If it wanted to remain a major player, one2one had to go elsewhere. Besides, increasing state pressure was beginning to bear down on Sierra Summit, including a threatened state audit team that would have included both McAteer and El Dorado County schools Superintendent Vicki Barber, a noted local critic of both Sierra Summit and Horizon.
Bauer and one2one severed ties. Bauer characterized the parting as friendly, and added that he welcomes all audits. One2one offered its spin in a June letter to state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin.
“At this point the Academy staff has documented their desire not to follow the stringent reporting requirements the Foundation feels are necessary to meet Department regulations,” wrote Robert L. Carroll, president of one2one’s California affiliate. “Therefore, with the conclusion of this school year on June 9, 2000, the Foundation will no longer serve as the charter school Management Company for Sierra Summit Academy. While we regret having to make this decision, we do not feel that compromising our standards supports successful education.”
On his own, Bauer has since rebuilt Sierra Summit to 400 students. Carroll, too, is still in business, though not as an employee of one2one. Through a corporate entity called the Charter School Resource Alliance, he has provided contract services, such as payroll processing, for one2one schools.
Carroll declined to be interviewed, so the SN&R turned to James Jones, who left one2one’s Texas headquarters in November 1999 to, as he put it, “help craft credible, local public schools that would be better accepted by the professional educators of the state.” While declining to address specific issues raised in the lawsuit, Jones said that one2one’s charters “did not meet the standards I would expect of a school. I came to California to restructure these schools to the caliber of the model I have in Texas.” In Texas, one2one runs a multi-campus charter school with more than 1,800 students—its only school outside California.
According to Jones, management practices here have been vastly improved. He noted, for example, that he employs a staff consultant to help one2one comply with all requirements for educating disabled students. He has offered a bonus to teachers when a high percentage of their families participate in the state testing program.
One2one is currently affiliated with eight California charter schools, totaling about 4,300 students. From a standpoint of revenue and enrollment, one2one is a success story, but Jones must repair a reputation that has been wounded by the turmoil surrounding Sierra Summit and the parents’ ongoing lawsuit.
For his part, Gaschler, who once evoked suspicion and disdain in state officials, has seen his image evolve into that of likable maverick. He was a presenter at December’s national charter-school convention in Washington, D.C. But his operation is not immune from complaints. Former Horizon parent Linda Hogge quit the school in frustration over the slow arrival of instructional materials and an unsatisfactory education specialist. “All she did was record the attendance, and boom, she was gone. My understanding was that she would meet with us once a month, with one hour for each child. I have two kids, and we met for maybe 45 minutes total.
“There was no real accountability,” added Hogge. “All she took notes on was what I told her. She didn’t see the kids’ work. The only record she has is what I told her from my lesson plans. And there was no feedback, nothing like, ‘This looks good’ or ‘You’re a little short in this area, and here is an idea of things you can try.’ ”
Hogge conceded that her experience may not be typical, but added that she sensed a troubling ethos among the school’s parents.
“At an open house, a parent commented to me that the state’s guidelines were just the state’s political idea of what we should be learning. Well, I’ve looked at the guidelines on my own. If every child was able to have a taste of all those things, they’d be well-rounded and well-educated. Another parent said she just wanted her children to study the things they’re interested in. I think that’s a crime. Kids don’t always know what they’re going to be interested in until they’re exposed to many things.
“And my first education specialist said I would find out that home school is much more laid-back than traditional school. I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I want my kids educated. My intention was to give them not just a good education but a great education.”
Her concerns were echoed by a one2one teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “One thing that a lot of home-school parents fail to understand is that good, trained teachers are masters in curriculum and child development. For home schooling to be successful, parents have to work very hard.
“About half of the families I work with are doing a fine job,” the teacher added. “The other half I think are playing the system. I have one mom who wants funds to buy art supplies for her kids. They do just enough to stay in the program. Other parents are home schooling because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do. They don’t want any input from me, none at all. Some parents don’t want anything to do with public schools and want a Christian tint to their children’s education.”
Gaschler doesn’t dodge challenges to his formula. Part of the envelope he is pushing is that of parental choice. If parents want an untraditional curriculum or ungraded progress reports, he’s prepared to authorize that. He’ll also respect parents’ concerns for privacy if they oppose the forwarding of academic or personal information, a practice other schools have complained about. Nonetheless, Gaschler insisted, his schools maintain high academic standards: “While great latitude is given to how those standards are taught, a student is never released from the burden of having to achieve them.” He asserted too that he keeps more records on students than the typical school district—he has to, he said, because his attendance claim is based on work accomplished and not seat time. If need be, he said, bring on the auditors.
El Dorado County Superintendent Vicki Barber, a tireless Horizon critic, said she can cite example after example of students who got good grades for virtually no work and who learned little during their time in Horizon. Gaschler responded with counter-examples, including the Roundtree family, who graduated two sons from high school early under Horizon. The older son has gone on to excel both at junior college and in the engineering program at Cal State Sacramento. Parent Anne Roundtree pleaded guilty to preferring methods that some educators would consider lax. She disliked giving her six children tests, for example, or formal grades.
“I found out they learn more when they’re happy and follow their interests,” said Roundtree, adding, “I felt fully qualified to teach them, because I’m their mother, and I love them more than anyone ever could. And I know their needs and their style of learning.”
It remains to be seen how much the home-school charter and its offshoots have to offer the main event of school reform. How does this model apply to urban areas in which parents work long hours at low-wage jobs to barely make ends meet? In crowded apartments where children have no place to study and where there’s no secure spot for a home computer? In households where neither parent is educated—or neither parent speaks English?
Gaschler is certain that he can adapt a charter school to serve a broader clientele. He already has begun to expand into operating modified site-based campuses. “My goal is somewhat unrealistic,” he said. “I understand that. But I’ve succeeded in doing things I had no business doing. I’m thinking that now is the prime time to change public education as we know it today. A handful of people changed it to what we know now. Why couldn’t it be done again?”
But the disillusioned one2one teacher is not persuaded by what he’s seen of home-school charters: “My whole feeling is that people way up at the top are making a lot of money.”