Charter school battle erupts in rustic California hamlet

UPDATE: The forces that were trying to charterize the school as described below have dropped the proposal.

Note from Parents Across America founding member Caroline Grannan in San Francisco: Lagunitas, Calif., is a tree-shaded, rustic community in West Marin County on a road that winds from the suburbs north of San Francisco westward to the rugged coast. And now Lagunitas has joined a list of communities of all kinds and sizes split apart by battles over charter schools. Parents are fighting back against a move to turn their “Waldorf-inspired” public school into a charter. (There are debates about the Waldorf philosophy and public schools, but this issue transcends those concerns — it could happen anywhere.) Robert Ovetz, Ph.D., a parent at the school, wrote this commentary.

Across the state public schools are threatened with a “death by a thousand cuts” of budget cuts, rising class sizes, standardized tests, and teacher layoffs that set our children up for failure. Waiting in the wings is the charter school industrial complex seeking to turn our public schools into the next profit making industry. Schools and even entire districts are being shut down and reopened as privatized charter schools in New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC, and Philadelphia.

Now these Walmart and Bill Gates-funded charter pushers have their sights set on our little school in the West Marin San Geronimo Valley. And parents are getting organized and fighting to stop it.

In light of several years of devastating cuts there is an effort to turn my daughter’s beloved public Waldorf Inspired program into a charter school. If the Lagunitas School District approves it on June 12 it would drain money from the district, duplicate administrative costs, reduce funding for the students in the charter, and undermine the very Waldorf curriculum it purports to protect.

The charter school’s spokesman claims that going charter would be a “win/win” for everyone in the district. But that claim is disputed by the facts in their own petition—and the school district’s own initial analysis.

The charter movement thrives on anti-democratic practices. For example, we parents were never given an opportunity to read, discuss and debate the merits of the 225 page charter petition before we were pushed to sign it a mere four days before it was delivered to the district. A few of us refused the strong arm tactics, fearmongering, and the complete lack of democracy and transparency.

Once we began reading it we found some startling problems, flaws and reasons for the District to deny the charter petition. Parents facing charter school pushers should read the charter petition closely and ask for help deciphering and fighting it as we have.

Class sizes will increase as much as 48%. New teachers will not have to be certified in Waldorf and will receive no support to get training. Teachers and staff would also be stripped of all seniority, pay increases, and collective bargaining rights.

Almost none of the students in our district take standardized tests. But beginning in the 2nd grade, students will be required to spend months prepping for and taking standardized tests that are incompatible with Waldorf methods. If test scores are too low the school would be shut down.

The charter does not plan to provide subsidized lunches for low-income students, will not offer tutoring, has no plan to promote racial and ethnic diversity, and expects to enroll no immigrants students (although at least 6 current families have an immigrant parent including ours).

Surprisingly, although the charter would spend more on a duplicated and wasteful administrator, secretary, lawyers and consultants—19% of the budget—than on all the instructional aides combined, the District warns that it may not even be enough.

To top it off the charter would demand an annual $1,300 tuition for each student under the guise of a “donation.” Because such “donations” would comprise 15% of the budget we parents will face more pressure to pay or leave.

The charter would drain money, facilities and resources from the rest of the district, forcing more layoffs. This would pay for a 40% increase in charter enrollment driven by out of district transfer students who would come with at least $2,000 less money than currently spent on resident students.

The larger the enrollment the more money squeezed out of the rest of the district. In total, the charter is demanding the District give it at least $464,000 more money in its first 3 years than it now spends on the Waldorf program. As a result, the District would be forced to make drastic cuts to fund the charter.

Contrary to the charter petitioners’ claims, there is no savings. There are only huge costs.

Some of those costs are hidden. The charter plans to provide special education by essentially dumping the costs back onto the District. It is also only offering the District about $500 per month to rent our current classrooms and access to the rest of both campuses — a figure far below current market rental costs.

According to its budget, if the charter doesn’t get the money it demands, it  would slash half of the instructional aides. Cutting half the curriculum would undermine its claim to provide a quality Waldorf education to our children.

To add insult to injury, the charter would use taxpayer money to pay its membership fee for the Walmart- and Bill Gates-funded charter school lobbyist group that works to privatize our public schools. It would also continue paying a law firm that works with these lobbyists to sue districts that stand up to charter school demands.

We parents are fighting the charter. In only a few weeks we collected signatures on a statement opposing the charter from the equivalent of 11% of the District’s registered voters. More than 2/3 of the people who spoke at the recent hearing were against the charter school. Many of the problems we documented have recently been confirmed by the District and the County’s attorneys and staff reviewing the charter petition.

We are joining a growing movement that has recently defeated charter school proposals in Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa.

Our fight is clear. We already have a public Waldorf school. We don’t need a charter school.

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Robert Ovetz, Ph.D. is a Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program parent, member of Concerned Citizens for Public Education, and a social sciences instructor at College of Marin. He blogs at Lagunitas School District Watch.

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