By Leslie Layton, New America Media / ChicoSol
CHICO, CA — Regan just opened the world's largest orphanage. Morgen found a cure for malaria. And Alex was a record-breaking lawyer.
Here at Chico Country Day School (CCDS), where students are predominantly white, Regan, Morgen and Alex were among the fourth-graders who were asked, as part of their school assignment, to imagine themselves as the future Time magazine's Person of the Year. They put together an issue of the magazine to honor their future selves.
While this assignment may sound too idealistic to many, it adds appeal for well-educated parents to enroll their children in a charter school like CCDS, which they see as an academic institution that will boost their children's confidence.
One mile to the east, fourth-graders at Chapman Elementary School (CES), Chico's most diverse public school, were also tackling a hands-on project. But theirs was a fourth-grade ritual that is familiar to public-school students throughout the state. The students built a cardboard model of a California mission.
Both CCDS and CES are in fact public schools running on taxpayer dollars. Yet, their differences — and the types of students and parents those differences attract — illustrate an unforeseen consequence of the charter movement.
In small cities and suburbs, charters can upend even healthy traditional schools by siphoning off students and the per-pupil state funding they bring in. The result can reshape public education by increasing segregation based on class, ethnicity and even ability.
At CCDS, less than 1 percent of students are Latinos who take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The school serves free and discounted meals to 125 children. Only 25 percent of the student body qualifies for these meals.
At CES, on the other hand, 52 percent of the students are Latinos and Hmong who take ESL classes. Federal guidelines qualify 92 percent of the students for subsidized meals.
"For some of these kids, these are the two meals a day they get," CES Principal Ted Sullivan said as he supervised breakfast.
Chico Country Day School doesn't come close to matching the demographics of the Chico Unified School District, while Chapman Elementary School, located in low-income Chapmantown, serves a large number of the district's English learners and disadvantaged students.
The Class Divide
Class and ethnic segregation were occurring in school districts long before charter schools appeared. But according to a UCLA study, "Choice Without Equity," which was released in February 2010, the charter movement worsens the racial, ethnic and class divide in most of the country. The large number of white students enrolling in Chico-area charter schools is a trend seen throughout California and the western United States.
The UCLA study also shows that in Butte County, in 2008, white students made up 81 percent of the charter school population and only 67 percent of the traditional school population.
"We found that charters were acting as havens for white students," said co-author Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a research associated at the School of Education's Civil Rights Project. The study brands the charter movement a "civil rights failure," in part because of what authors sometimes call "white flight."
Changes in class and culture at Chapman and Chico Country are at the heart of the charter school divide. Throughout the Chico Unified School District, teachers and parents worry that many of the 10 local charter schools are "skimming" to attract students who are the best prepared and who have parents who can help in the classroom and in raising funds.
The “Superman” Myth
The new documentary film “Waiting for Superman” reinforces the charter school fairy tale that many Americans are familiar with: the inner city school rescuing impoverished kids and opening doors to opportunity.
Education officials in Sacramento and Washington believe that they have come under the spell. The California Department of Education, for example, awarded more than $48.5 million in federal funds to 101 new schools during the last fiscal year, according to its website.
But those Superman-type schools aren't the norm, and the charter movement, like any sweeping reform, is grounded in a mix of realities and myths.
The 1992 charter school law was designed to foster innovation, choice and competition by giving the schools the freedom to operate much like private schools. But how competition will improve education for the majority of Chico kids is unclear.
Chico Unified serves 82 percent of the district's students, including most of the district’s disabled children, English-language learners and students with behavioral problems. English learners are vastly under-represented in all 10 charters, except at the Nord Country School, located in a farming community on the outskirts of town.
"I do worry that if the trend were to continue, taken to the illogical extreme, one could see where we would be Chico Unified EL [English learners]/Special Ed," said Bob Feaster, CUSD assistant superintendent of human resources. "In [terms of] diverse groups, we're kind of going backwards to the old '50s let's-have-separate-but-equal."
CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley added: "But not equal."
In a recent interview, Feaster and Staley discussed the inequities in the 1992 charter school legislation that make it tough for traditional schools to compete with charters. Charter schools can disregard much of the state education code, sidestep union contracts and spend more of their funding any way they wish.
Most Chico charters promote a philosophy that attracts a particular demographic. A sophisticated parent can shop for a school that specializes in Montessori, Waldorf or sustainability. But they have to know where to look. There is hardly any local agency that offers a complete list of public school options.
Volunteer Hours a Problem
For children of parents who don't own a good car, don't have the skill or knowledge to shop for a school, or don't have the will to cross cultural barriers, school choice is believed to be a myth. Additionally, the parent volunteer requirements that have been adopted by many charter schools around the country are also a barrier to low-income families, said Siegel-Hawley.
CCDS, the city's largest charter, provides themed, interdisciplinary education. But it also expects parents to volunteer 50 hours a year at the school.
Teacher Susie Bower, the Chico Country's "Integrated Thematic Instruction" guru, said she designed the Time Magazine assignment to tie in with a class theme of "citizen responsibilities." But the assignment also provided her students an opportunity to imagine themselves as leaders in a field of their choice.
Fourth-grader Regan paused to consider a reporter's question. "I've learned that really, if you want, you can be whatever… you can open a big orphanage," she said. Then, smiling coyly as if she knew she was about to utter a cliché, she added, "The sky's the limit."
Strong Test Scores, Lottery for Spaces
Like most successful charter schools, Chico Country has mythic qualities. The school doles out available slots in a lottery that inevitably drives some parents to elation or tears. Its test scores reflect a strong curriculum and contribute to its reputation for academic rigor, even though it's out-performed on standardized testing by a traditional public school, Shasta Elementary.
Chico Country parents chafe at the perception that their sky-is-the-limit school is exclusive.
"I get a little defensive when I hear us called 'privileged,'" said Shayne Law, president of the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA). "Everyone has the same option. You don't see a Mercedes in the parking lot."
But while parents may not see themselves as privileged, many outside the school do. The charter school's 15-member board of directors includes prominent Chicoans – a former police chief, business owners, professors, lawyers.
Chico's Angela Lopez stumbled upon Chico Country while searching for a new school for her son, who until the middle of the last school year was a Chapman fifth-grader. But the boy was having trouble with another student, and eventually came home with a minor knife-wound to his arm.
She had often walked by Chico Country, which is four blocks from her house. "I always thought, 'That looks like a nice school,'" she said. She asked about transferring her son there. There was a mid-year opening and the boy was admitted.
Latino parents are largely unaware of charter school options, she said. “They live by a school and just want their children to go there because it’s close. I’m really happy I found out about that school.”
Law Aimed at Closing Gap
The earliest charter proponents wanted to give parents like Lopez a choice in schools. Charters, they thought, could help close the achievement gap, particularly in large cities where inner-city schools were failing impoverished communities.
In the 1980s, the charter movement gained traction as conservatives saw a chance to weaken powerful teachers’ unions and bring deregulation to public education.
The result is a charter law that states there should be "expanded learning experiences" for the "academically low-achieving," but doesn't provide an enforcement mechanism to the school districts that authorize charters. State law says charter schools should plan to reflect the diversity of the district authorizing their charters.
Last winter, Chico Unified asked Chico Country for a "stronger commitment" to increasing diversity after the charter school petitioned to renew its charter and open a high school, according to a CUSD report.
Chico Country re-submitted its charter petition with several new measures aimed at diversifying its lottery pool. The charter school said that within the next two years, it will hire a bilingual outreach coordinator.
This story was made possible by an education beat fellowship from New America Media, and produced in partnership with the Chico News and Review.