by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - July 21, 2001: Charter Homeschool Funding - The California Debate.
Right now there is a bit of a "dust-up" taking place in the California State Legislature over the issue of funding for homeschool charters. For those readers who may not be familiar with all the various incarnations of charter schools, homeschool charters are schools that have been chartered by a school district or county board of education to provide services for students who are being home schooled (usually by a parent).
Under the California charter laws these homeschool charters have been receiving the same amount of per pupil funding from the state as other schools based on the "average daily attendance" figures for the operation. This amount, typically, is about $5,000 per student. A number of critics have pointed out the potential for profiteering inherent in this arrangement. Since these homeschool charters have no school sites to maintain and do not need to hire teachers, they can operate with far lower overhead than either regular public schools or site-based charter schools.
State senator Jack O'Connell, a Democrat from San Luis Obispo who has been active in school reform efforts, added an amendment to this year's state budget legislation that would reduce the funding for homeschool charters by 30%. This money would be transferred to site-based charters in low-income neighborhoods. If this amendment receives final approval approximately 90 charter schools (about one-third of all the charters in California) would be affected.
O'Connell's move was prompted by reports in The San Francisco Chronicle of abuses taking place in the HomeSmartKids school that operates under a charter granted by the tiny Knightsen school district in Contra Costa County. According to the story by Chronicle reporter Nanette Asimov, HomeSmartKids is a for-profit operation that, until recently, was run by former school principal Rod Pocock and his accountant wife Joslyn. HomeSmartKids provided the family of each enrolled student up to $1,500 to cover the costs of books, supplies, and field trips. Part of the remaining funds were used to pay "certificated teachers" whose job it was to check on students' work and to provide advice and help to the parents who did the actual teaching. However, a fairly large chunk of the funds went to pay the Pococks a salary ($25,000 each) and their company a management fee of 37.5%.
The management fee, which was scheduled to rise to 43.5% in three years, brought in more than $500,000. Part of this money went to cover office expenses (the school was run out of an office at the Delta Christian School in Antioch, CA) and wages for two clerks who earn $13 per hour. Mr. Pocock has declined to provide detailed information about rental costs and other office expenses. However, given that the school enrolls only 300 students and has only two office employees, it is doubtful that as much as $100,000 is needed to cover that part of the operation. This means that there is more than $400,000 unaccounted for. The Pococks claimed through their attorney, according to the Chronicle story that as a private company they were not required to account for how the management fee was spent.
Sen. O'Connell and others have cited this example along with some other questionable practices by homeschool charters as the main reason to reduce public funding for them unless they can clearly justify full funding. O'Connell's main argument is that California's charter school program was intended to help parents, teachers and and school districts to establish public charter schools that would improve education -- not to provide an opportunity for quick profit.
The Irascible Professor agrees in part with Sen. O'Connell. Clearly, there is a need to ensure that public funds that are being used to support homeschool charters are being spent appropriately. However, O'Connell's proposal to reduce funding by 30% should be considered only a stopgap measure. Homeschool charters are inherently different than regular charter schools. The Legislature needs to formulate regulations for homeschool charters that ensure that there is accountability for how public funds are spent to support these operations. The charter laws are intended to free schools from much of the bureaucracy associated with regular schools. However, there needs to be some minimal rules to ensure that the level of state funding for homeschool charters is rationally related to the actual costs of education, and that the bulk of the funds actually are being used to support educational activities. In addition, there are two other issues that need to be examined. Since many, though not all, parents who homeschool their children do so for religious reasons, the Legislature should establish regulations that ensure that taxpayer funds are being used to support only educational activities by homeschool charters. Finally, there needs to be educational as well as fiscal accountability for homeschool charters.
© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.