Monday, August 26, 2019

CA: The Homeschool Charter Business Behind The Latest Scandal

If you aren't in California, you may have missed this special little variation on the charter school business model-- homeschooling charters. It's a curious note in the recent big money charter scam in California, which we'll get back to in a moment.

This is what you get if vouchers and charters had a baby and it was raised by homeschooling wolves. Homeschoolers "enroll" their students in a "school," and that "school" gives the family a yearly "allowance" that the family directs the "school" to spend on their behalf. It's totally "legal" and not a profitable scam for circumventing California's tissue-like charter "laws" at all. Some folks love it; others, not so much.

Let me just get this out of your way.
Homeschoolers love it. Here's a homeschooling blog plugging the whole set-up as a way to "customize" their child's education to reflect "that reflects our family’s interests, priorities, learning styles, and values." They get $2600 to have spent on their behalf, and they've used that for music lessons, basketball clinics, gymnastics lessons, field trips, sailing lessons, and curriculum (Amazon and Rainbow Resources are two examples of vendors in that biz). There is no state-0mandated curriculum, so families can select whatever they want. This particular blogger notes that he prefers "to use our funds on experiences and activities." Students do have to take the Big Standardized Test, but for these families, it is a no stakes test. This blogger notes that some families don't even open then envelope when the results arrive.

The charter companies love it. You might ask-- what do they actually do? Well, they have to track and spend the money, while providing "oversight" of that spending as well as lining up vendors for the homeschooling families to choose from (although, of course, vendors fight for that privilege). And an actual certified teacher has to visit the families about once a month. The charter still collects the full state per pupil payment, so the schools are lucrative; the CEO of Inspire (more about them in a moment) makes a whopping $380,000 a year. That's a lot of love.

Who doesn't love this model?

Well, there's plenty to not love. Before anybody started paying attention, charter homeschool money was being spent on some interesting "educational" activities. Here a parent in the Valiant Prep system (the other big name in the business) talks about how she spent some of her money

This year, we have used our funds for a few fun field trips. We visited Disney California Adventure, purchased a Chicago City Pass which allowed us to visit the Science Center, Museum and more, and attended a Harlem Globetrotter’s Game. We also have trips planned to Medieval Times which were purchased with Valiant Prep homeschool funds.

Those "homeschool funds" are, of course, taxpayer dollars. The state has clamped down on amusement park spending, but the homeschool charters have also gotten cagier-- Valiant used to have a publicly accessible directory of its approved vendors, but that page has apparently been taken down.

And then there's the authorizing of this business. Dehesa School District has been the authorizer of Inspire and Valiant, and if that rings any bells that's because the district and its superintendent are part of the May 2019 indictment of eleven folks who are charged with defrauding California of $50 million via A3 Charter Schools through fraudulent practices involving several charter schools-- including Valiant. And Dehesa's superintendent Nancy Hauer was also charged with over-billing the charters for the "oversight" provided by the district. Also backing up the scheme was Steve Van Zant, a superintendent and "key figure in San Diego area charter expansion" who has been in trouble before for charter-related shenanigans and so had to hide his involvement this time.

Dehesa's involvement is itself a sign of how this kind of money drives "misbehavior." They're a tiny rural district. They need money. and authorizing charter schools is a way to get it. Meanwhile, a whole lot of students are suddenly without a school at all, and since California lets school districts authorize charters that are grabbing students from other districts, Dehesa doesn't even have to pick up after the mess that it helped make. That's on the public schools serving the areas where the students actually live.

While Valiant has been at least partially shut down, Inspire is still going strong, and attracting attention. It expects to "enroll" 12,000 students this year, despite a growing reputation for financial "irregularities" and really lousy performance on that test its parents don't have to care about. Inspire expects to pull in $285 million in taxpayer dollars this year. 12,000 students at $2,600 per student will cost Inspire $31.2 million of that $285 million. That's a pretty hefty cut of the taxpayer's money.

And Inspire is a fresh face in this business. Nick Nichols started it in 2013 and acquired authorization from Dehesa in 2015. That was the year he left his job as Coordinator, Instructional Expert and Instructional Coach with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He'd been with LAUSD since 2001; the background he brought to that job was a BA in Social Studies from the Master's University. So, another education "expert."

Inspire has drawn plenty of criticism not just from advocates of public education, but from others in the charter biz. Because, I guess, "parental choice" is only an important guiding principle when nobody is using it to entice your customers to leave you.

Jeff Rice, founder and director of APlus+, the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services, had invited Inspire to join his chartery club, but told NBC7 that he changed his mind and removed them:

"As our relationship with Inspire evolved over time, we found that there were numerous reports of questionable practices,” Rice said. “Primarily it had to do with the use of public funds as well as recruiting practices.”

Inspire has annoyed other charters with its recruiting practices. Terri Schiavone, the head of the Golden Valley Charter School in Ventura said, "They target a school and then try to get as many of their teachers and students as possible." Schiavone also criticized the lack of oversight and the way customers are "enticed" by various incentives like the whole "buy tickets to Disneyland" thing. She's also one more person accusing Inspire of allowing religious curriculum, though the Inspire folks swear up and down that they don't allow that particular law to be broken. Inspire says the other charter schools are just jealous. I expected to find other charter operators saying, "Well, this is just the free market at work with competition that just pushes us to be better," but so far, no.

Of course, Inspire isn't marketing itself as better, because given its test scores, it can't. Instead it has to market itself as a chance to get a government subsidy for homeschooling while still teaching your children whatever you do, or don't, want to teach them, with no particular oversight, but with some extra dollars to make the experience more fun. Meanwhile, the model leaves so much extra unsupervised money floating around that it has attracted all sorts of bad actors and corruption.

As California tightens up its charter school laws, let's hope they take a look at the homeschool "charter" model and shut it down.

1 comment:

  1. Well sure, some people take advantage of it, but the majority do not. It would be like demanding to shut down welfare because welfare fraud exists.

    In 2020, they became stricter on what the funds could be spent on - as they should. Also during this school year, these programs became impacted due to COVID - and turned out to be a much better model to learn than a zoom classroom.

    We should always look to reform instead of 'shut it down'... in any government program.