There's more below the surface
There is an interesting controversy at the St. Vrain Valley School District concerning the approval of two new charter schools. According to the district’s accountability and accreditation committee Lotus School of Excellence and Skyview Charter School fail to meet the minimum standards for approval.
As a former teacher, parent and grandparent, I recognize the importance of a superior education. The institution of free public education to all children in the United States is something that we should treasure – forever.
A public education serves many purposes. It provides the foundation necessary to succeed in a complex society. I am reminded of the saying that “we learn to read in order that we might read to learn.” It prepares us for citizenship, not just as Americans but as citizens of a larger world.
As a society we have concluded that an educated population is of benefit to all of us and accordingly we have agreed to tax ourselves to achieve this. Regardless of age or family status education benefits us individually and collectively.
Raising and educating children has always been and will always be a challenge. We are all of us individuals with differing levels of intellect and talent. We learn through different methods and we have individual interests.
As Americans we have had many choices to educate our children. We can send them to public schools, private schools or religious schools. If we choose the latter two, any costs associated with those choices are our individual responsibility.
In recent decades public charter schools have gained cachet. Declining student performance has caused us to examine reasons and solutions. That is as it should be. However, there is an absence of purity of purpose in our efforts. Superior performance should be the only goal, but that is not and perhaps never has been the sole motivation behind this changing emphasis.
As such, the move toward public charter schools needs to be examined for motives beyond a high quality education.
One of the underlying motives for pushing charter schools is a hatred of teachers unions by some individuals and segments of our society. Our public school teachers have been demonized simply because they belong to a union. Certainly there are good and bad teachers as there are good and bad electricians, plumbers, accountants, lawyers, analysts, financial advisors, and so on. That will always be the case. However, the quality of our teachers is only one component of poor pupil performance, and very probably not the most important component. The student, the parent, peers and broader societal conditions all bear some responsibility.
Americans are resistant to change, especially sudden and drastic change. They have demonstrated that over and over again. For this reason, we need to be especially concerned about incrementalism, movement in slow and subtle steps to an outcome that would not be acceptable if it were to take place all at once.
There are those whose goal is to privatize all education. There are those who seek tax credits and/or vouchers for private, religious and homeschooling. All of this flies in the face of our agreed upon social goals and the reasonable sharing of the cost.
In the case of Lotus School of Excellence there is a further complicating issue. Lotus plans to rent space at LifeBridge Christian Church, located in unincorporated Boulder County just north of Highway 66.
The Times-Call has had two articles this week on the controversy of approving the applicants. Several readers commented on the articles. Amongst them is Matt Yapanel, president of the board of directors of Lotus.
He writes the following about the relationship between Lotus and LifeBridge.
Charter schools get around 30% less funding then regular public schools. That’s why we have to be extremely careful with our spending. Creating an efficiently run school is the goal and we make even pennies count toward improving student achievement. With less money, most charter schools are providing better opportunities for their students. I can tell you that we have achieved this in our Aurora campus which was a previous church/private school facility. When we leased space from the church, they were in financial trouble; they had another project to build and move but were not able to sell their existing facility. As a charter school, that facility was very suitable for us to serve as our permanent campus. We purchased the facility, co-existed in the building sharing the mortgage payments in which time Lotus improved its enrollment to fully support the facility when the church has moved out. Meanwhile church has built their great new home and moved there ultimately. Both entities got what they needed to the best possible extent; it was a win-win situation for both parties. Lotus took over the full facility this year and opened an elementary school to serve 610 students, 65% of which are free-reduced lunch eligible and 80% are minority students. Because of the shared use of the space, we saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, which we put right back into the classroom. Therefore, sharing space with a church is a fiscally very responsible move. We are a public school simply sharing space with a church, that’s what most charter schools do as they establish their program and work to acquire a permanent campus. It is challenging to be able to pay for a facility when you get 30% less dollars. However it is not the quality or appearance of the facility that matters, it is the programs running in that facility that matters the most.
Although Mr. Yapanel was speaking about the Aurora situation, those who are aware of circumstances surrounding LifeBridge will see strong similarities in both situations.
LifeBridge mortgaged it’s properties at Highway 66 and those in Weld County between Union Reservoir and Highway 119 for $26 million dollars in July of 2007. They planned to build a waterfront community of homes with a substantial religious campus as well as commercial enterprises. Their intent was to annex the Weld County properties to Longmont. There is also a history of attempts to annex to Longmont the church’s existing facilities and properties. None of those efforts came to fruition because of resistance within the Longmont community for many reasons and from many interests.
In December of 2009 LifeBridge refinanced its debt to the Church Development Fund (CDF) and turned approximately half of its Weld County properties over to CDF as deeds in lieu of foreclosure. The LifeBridge project was derailed by the economic conditions that have resulted in massive declines in both residential and commercial development, amongst other changing financial circumstances.
With LifeBridge in need of money and Lotus in need of a location, the two entities have joined forces. One of the concerns that the St. Vrain Valley School District with which it is wrestling is indirectly supporting the financial needs of LifeBridge Church through taxpayer dollars that would go to support Lotus. This is a slippery slope towards violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
If Lotus can overcome its low score in the accreditation assessment, it would do well to find a location other than a church to house its school. In today’s economic situation, I’m confident that there are options for its location that would not place the SVVSD in the precarious position of de facto supporting a church.
All of us with a concern for the education of our children, need to take a step back and ask further: Are charter schools really the answer to our needs or are they a step towards privatization? If our schools are substantially privatized, what happens to the education of those who cannot afford private tuition? If tax dollars are used to support school privatization as they are in so many other instances, who then decides what is taught and how it is taught?
There is a place for public, private and religious schools. But only public education deserves taxpayer support. We can fix what’s wrong without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.