Friday, April 13, 2007 | Though the approval of a charter school is usually a routine matter, a proposal to open San Diego’s first online public high school is energizing an rare debate on the school board about the growing number of charters that make up San Diego’s public school system.

If approved, the local campus of the Insight School of California would become the city’s first completely web-based high school. The company bankrolling the school’s founding says it would fill a critical need in the city, providing an alternative for students who may be unwilling or unable to attend regular classes.

  • The Issue: A private company has proposed opening San Diego’s first online high school for students who may be unwilling or unable to attend regular classes under a charter from the San Diego Unified School District.
  • What It Means: One board member said the proposal is inconsistent with the spirit of charter schools, created to empower local communities and to improve public education.
  • The Bigger Picture: The cyberschool petition follows several recent dustups over charter schools in a district with a long history of supporting charters. In recent years relations between San Diego Unified and its charter schools have become increasingly frosty.

But one member of the San Diego Unified School District’s board has vowed to vote against the petition, citing concerns that a grassroots movement for improving public education is becoming hijacked by commercial forces and is accusing the company of carpetbagging.

At a public hearing on the petition this week, school board member John de Beck said that, “for the first time in a long time,” he would not support a school’s petition for a contract with the district. State law gives local school districts little power to denying charters.

“The charter movement was supposed to be locally generated ideas to improve schools in a community. What’s happening more and more, people are looking at it as an opportunity to come into a community and sell their design,” de Beck said in an interview Thursday. “It’s become kind of a cottage industry of people who are generating ideas. Some of them have merit, but why don’t they just operate where they are and prove it.”

Though de Beck has traditionally voted in favor of charter school petitions, he and several of the board’s newest elected members have suggested in recent years that the district should be focusing on improving its own schools.

The cyberschool petition follows several recent dustups over charter schools in a district with a long history of supporting charters — privately managed public campuses that are freed from many of the regulations governing traditional schools. Because they draw from the same student pool and receive state money, charter schools have had a tense coexistence with regular schools throughout California since 1992, when the state law authorizing them passed. Authors of the original law argued that it would empower concerned parents and teachers to play a more integral role in local education, and inspire new innovation at all schools.

About 10 percent of San Diego students currently attend a charter school — about three times the state average.

In recent years relations between San Diego Unified and its charter schools have become increasingly frosty. In 2005, parents at a struggling inner-city school fought a bitter battle against the school board over plans to turn the campus into a charter, and last year, the city’s charter schools and a statewide association sued the district, accusing it of violating state laws by not allowing the charters adequate access to district facilities.

Backers of the Insight School say they have chosen San Diego as the site for the campus because of the district’s longstanding cordial relationship with charter schools.

“San Diego Unified has had great success with charter schools,” said Brian Rose, the vice president of school development at Insight Schools Inc. “When we open a school, we want to form a close relationship with the school district.”

Acquired last fall by Apollo Group Inc., the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix, Insight Schools has proposed running its new San Diego campus jointly with a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit that has its own chain of Internet schools in Arizona.

Under a tentative budget submitted to the district, Insight Schools has pledged $800,000 in start-up capital to start the San Diego charter. In three years, the budget projects the school making nearly $1 million in profits. The district would get a part of the money for administrative fees, calculated under a formula defined by state law, and the two groups would split the rest of the money.

Many of the district’s other charter schools are also run by for-profit businesses, though it has few campuses that are part of corporations chains.

The new school would be based in San Diego, where it would keep its administrative office and staff, but it has plans to enroll a total of 500 students from all around San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties in its first year. De Beck said he thinks the firm has chosen San Diego Unified to seek its charter because the district is an “easy mark.”

“If they’re going to be a geographic entity, why would they come to us, other than the fact that we have a history of just rubber stamping these things?” he said. “A lot of salaries are going to come out of this that are not going to stay in the community.”

Rose, however, argues that the school promises to provide an invaluable community service for families that choose not send their kids to traditional schools.

“In most cases, it’s not a question of whether our students are going to be in a traditional public school or whether they’re going to be in our school. It’s a question of whether they’re going to be in a school at all,” he said.

At the company’s first school, which enrolled its first class in Washington state this fall, more than 3,000 students applied for an anticipated 350 spots. It estimates that 41 percent came from outside the public school system. Some may have been home-schooled, and others may have attended private institutions, but Rose said many had simply dropped out.

“I certainly understand his concerns,” Rose said of de Beck. “As a board member, he’s in the office to look after the interest and the needs of the kids that he serves, and I welcome his comments.”

He added: “We understand the needs of these kids, and the types of programs they’re looking for, so they can be successful.”

Under the proposed charter, the school would supply students with computers, printers and Internet stipends. They would also be able to choose from a broad offering of coursework, ranging from remedial classes to college-level Advanced Placement courses. Each week, students would be free to study the lessons at their own pace, and would meet one-on-one in a virtual classroom with a certified teacher. At the end of their four years, they would receive a high school diploma.

Rose said the model has even proven effective for students with learning disabilities and English learners.

The Arizona cyberschool run by Insight Schools’ partner Portable Practical Educational Preparation Inc. met its annual state performance standards last year and received passing marks under the No Child Left Behind Act, according to records maintained by that state’s Department of Education.

The San Diego school would not be the first such campus in California. Insight Schools competitor K12 Inc. has operated its California Virtual Academy for years in other parts of the state.

“They’re pretty common nationwide, and they’re becoming increasingly popular, as parents look for options that work best for their kids,” said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association.

But district officials, who have 60 days to evaluate the charter petition before it goes before a final school board vote, say they’re concerned about how the district would be able to oversee a school that has no school house. In particular, they say they still don’t understand how Insight Schools plans to translate the students’ online time into the daily attendance figures used to secure state funding — figures the district will have to certify.

“Certainly, there are a whole host of concerns about how an online school claims [average daily attendance] or funding for the students and ensuring that such a school, and the model they’re using, is rigorous,” said Kyo Yamashiro, director of the Office of School Choice at the San Diego school district. “It’s a whole different level of security that we would have to be very careful about.”

Rose said it’s still “premature for us to get into the operational aspects” of the operation.

To de Beck, the Insight Schools’ petition also exemplifies what he calls a fundamental flaw in the state law governing charters, one he says makes it too easy for roving outfits to start schools. Under the law, a charter petition must include signatures from at least 50 percent of the parents who plan on sending their children to the new school, or from at least half of the teachers who plan on instructing there.

The latter method, used by Insight Schools, was originally meant for traditional campus converting to charter status as a way to assure that the move had wide support from the teaching staff, de Beck said. These days, when four out of every five charter schools are start-ups, he said it has become an outdated loophole.

Supporters of charter schools disagree with his interpretation of the law.

“The point is, the law is very clear. It’s a law that has worked extremely well for 15 years, and it has created some of the best public schools in California,” Larson said.

Other members of the San Diego school board side with the charters. Board President Luis Acle argues that the body’s discretion over all charters is limited by state law to simply ensuring that they have a viable business model and a sound educational strategy. If they do, the board has no choice but to accept the petitions.

“I believe this world and this challenge is big enough for as many people that want to make a sincere and effective effort,” Acle said. “For me, the enemy isn’t charter schools or the charter school movement. For me, the enemy is apathy, poor achievement and dropout.”

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