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It’s unclear if the pandemic boosted enrollment in Orange County’s charter schools when traditional public schools were shut down by the state, while concerns linger about a lack of oversight for charter schools.

Over 1,200 more students were enrolled in charter schools this previous school year in Orange County than in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data.

These schools are independently operated schools and funded by public tax dollars that proponents say offer more pathways for low-income kids and students of color with a more flexible approach to education. 

Mari Barke, president of the county’s Board of Education, said while Orange County saw a trend in charter school enrollment going up in recent years, it was nothing like during the pandemic.

“Parents were very frustrated at their traditional schools being closed and they knew of charter schools that were open and there were several that were open almost the entire time. They were the ones that could pivot very, very quickly to virtual learning … And then they could pivot back to allowing children in the school.”

Mari Barke, President of the Orange County Board of Education

But that’s not what the Orange County Department of Education has seen.

Nichole Pichardo, a communication specialist at Orange County’s Department of Education, said in an email the department does not have data supporting an uptick in families in the county switching to charter schools since the start of the pandemic.

Pichardo said the department is responsible for the oversight and accountability of charter schools authorized by the county Board of Education and conducts annual visits to see if the schools are following safety and instructional requirements.

While the department deals with oversight, the county’s board of education acts as an appeals board for charter schools who are turned down by individual school districts.

[Read: OC School Reopening Reignites Debate Over Alternative Education, Charter Schools]

Some educators like Grant Schuster, president of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association, have concerns with charter schools and say it’s too early to tell if there has been a shift.

“When we start pulling individual students and their funding away from the public schools and establishing extra schools, we’re diluting the ability to use the funds to address all of the needs in the overall community,” he said in a phone interview Thursday

Funding for public schools in California is based on attendance and Schuster said the emergence of new charter schools means state money gets spread thinner. 

Amid the pandemic, funding has been based on enrollment instead.

Windi Eklund, a Placentia resident and President of the California Homeschool network, said charter schools offer a range of educational choices for students who may not thrive in traditional public schools.

“I think the benefit is the flexibility in how you can custom tailor a child’s education to fit their interests and their needs. Not all children fit in the brick and mortar district school,” she said, adding there’s been a statewide shift towards alternative education models since the pandemic.

Eklund said there are different types of charter schools including brick and mortar, hybrid programs or non classroom-based independent study charter schools where parents serve as the main educators.

In nonclassroom-based charter schools, parents meet with credentialed teachers who help pick out the student’s curriculum and direct student funds, Eklund said.

There are about 36 charter schools in the county — some which are non-classroom based schools, according to the state’s education department.

In the 2020-21 school year, 20,861 students in the county were enrolled in charter schools, while 435,711 schools were enrolled in non-charter schools, according to the California Department of Education.

According to the same database, charter school enrollment in the county has been climbing since before the pandemic — from 2.4% in 2014-15 to 4.6% in 2020-21.

During this same timeframe, total student enrollment in charter and non-charter schools combined has dropped from 497,116 to 456,572. 

Do Charter Schools Need More Oversight?

Charter School in Santa Ana on April 27, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Critics say some charter schools drain public school districts of funding and lack proper accountability and oversight.

Others disagree.

“If anything charter schools are under more scrutiny, especially now with so much legislation really attacking them in different areas,” Barke said. “My opinion is that they actually have more oversight.”

Eklund had her children enrolled in charter schools for years before moving her kids to a private school satellite program after increased regulations and legislation made such schools more “rigid.”

The state has been cracking down on nonclassroom-based online charter schools in the last few years.

Legislators put a moratorium on starting new non-classroom based charter schools in California.

“The state is definitely taking it too far. Charter schools were already held to a higher standard than our district schools were held to,” Eklund said.

Meanwhile, Michael Matsuda, Anaheim Union High School District’s superintendent, described EPIC, an online charter school in his district authorized by the county, as “pretty sketchy.”

“There’s just a lot of controversy with monetized charter schools. They operate like private schools, but they’re public schools but they don’t have nearly the amount of scrutiny and oversight that public schools have,” Matsuda said.

Some people have been accused of using charter schools to scam the state out of hundreds of millions of educational dollars.

Sean McManus and Jason Schrock, two leaders of a network of nonclassroom-based charter schools across California called A3, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges earlier this year and admitted to funneling taxpayer dollars into their own pockets through the schools.

“The ability — because of the lack of oversight — for people to siphon off money for private use out of the public school funds given to charter schools has been disgusting. It’s a shame for the students that are in those charter schools, and they really have had no recourse other than to go back to their public schools.”

Grant Schuster, President of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers’ Association

But Eklund said the public system is what allowed the problems with A3 to occur.

She also said legislators want homeschoolers to do so privately, rather than through public schools and don’t understand the need for nonclassroom-based charter schools.

“Not everyone is confident enough to homeschool privately, a lot of us wanted the support of a public school, we wanted the teacher that was credentialed — that we could check in with. We wanted to know that our student was meeting the Common Core standards and moving through the same kind of lessons and getting the same content that their peers from public schools would be getting,” Eklund said.

“Just because the public classroom up the street doesn’t work for us, doesn’t mean we don’t respect and want an education for our children.”

Eklund said she has nothing against traditional public schools and it’s an option that works well for many families.

“It’s kind of a bell curve. Our public schools work really well for the kids that are in the middle, but our charter schools end up serving the students that are gifted or have some kind of struggle that they’re dealing with…We just need to help students find what works for them.”

Windi Eklund, Placentia Resident & President of the California Homeschool Network

Barke said charter schools families shouldn’t have to suffer because of “bad apples.”

Both Matsuda’s district and the Anaheim Elementary School District pushed back on EPIC — the online charter school — operating in Anaheim back in 2016, but the Orange County Board of Education approved the charter school at an appeals hearing.

“The Orange County school board — really they authorize a lot of charter schools without virtually any oversight. So there’s a lot of funny business going on,” Matsuda said.

Despite this, Matsuda said there are a few charter schools in the county that are innovative and doing good work like El Sol Academy and Samueli Academy.

“Now’s the time to relook at how school is being taught and what is the purpose of education,” Matsuda said. “We can’t go back to the old ways of doing things.”

He says there are big transformations coming to education and schools need to prepare students for college with more purpose.

“At the K-12 level, we focus more on traditional metrics, LSAT scores,” Matsuda said. “What about the kid? What is their purpose? What is their passion? We need to do a better job of preparing them for that so that they don’t go blind.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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