This article is written in response to the commentary of Aug. 22 by Ken Pfalzgraf on SCVNews.com in regard to the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District and its charter schools.
Pfalzgraf laid out a series of facts to support his apparent disagreement with the district’s charter school efforts; however, in doing so, he left out a number of significant facts in an apparent attempt to justify his opposition to the district’s direction. When all of the facts are included, a much different picture appears.
In his commentary, Pfalzgraf described AADUSD’s operation of charter schools as not yet being “legally or legislatively validated,” which belies the actual facts. As of today, the legal issue has been legally resolved, since the district ultimately prevailed in the courts at both the trial and appellate level (Newhall School District v. AADUSD re: the Albert Einstein Academy).
As for the legislative perspective, the Legislature is divided on the issue of existing charter school law, as it comes under immense pressure from traditional school districts that are threatened by the existence of charter schools. It has become a complicated political issue on a number of levels that seem to have perplexed the Legislature – and this dynamic does not lend itself to a simplified black-and-white issue that Pfalzgraf would have the reader believe.
Pfalzgraf addressed that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee considered an audit of three school districts that authorize charter schools, one of those being AADUSD, and he intimated that with the hundreds of school districts in the state, AADUSD must be doing something wrong to undergo an audit. Again, the audit committee’s effort is part of that complicated political issue underway in the state as it relates to charter schools.
There are two points of interest for the reader to know: First, the audit committee voted 7 to 6 to approve that the audit process take place – with the split vote on the matter serving as a reflection of the divide within the Legislature and the pressure the lawmakers are under. Second, Assurance Learning Academy, an authorized charter of the district, is one of the schools targeted by the audit – the claim being that ALA does not meet the academic progress of its students under the Education Code.
However, what Pfalzgraf either does not know or failed to mention is that the ALA charter school was specifically designed to target at-risk youth who have dropped out of high school (including those incarcerated or previously incarcerated) in an effort to provide them with an avenue to recover academic credits. Because of its target population, ALA does not operate under the standard accountability model within the Education Code. Instead, it operates under the Alternative Schools Accountability Model. ASAM was designed by none other than by the California Department of Education to service this at-risk youth population and is enumerated under sections 52051.5 through 52052.9 of the Education Code, with emphasis under section 52052(g).
In developing ASAM, the CDE recognized that this at-risk youth population attending an alternative education program could not be compared to a traditional comprehensive high school program or traditional standardized test scores. With this said, it stands to reason that an at-risk youth population would have lower standardized test scores than a regular high school accountability model. While ALA certainly serves a population outside of the Acton-Agua Dulce area, it also serves as a valuable resource for numerous local youth living in our town. The district is confident the state audit will be favorable to ALA.
It is Pfalzgraf’s claim that the district operates on the “outer fringe of the charter school game,” and he insinuates that the district is making up for lost state funding by “taking a cut” off of the charters it sponsors. However, he makes no mention of why the district has authorized its charter schools beyond some perceived money grab.
Let’s place this matter into perspective: The AADUSD school board initiated our charter school efforts in part because a sizable number of parents in Acton-Agua Dulce were demanding a charter school alternative within our district boundaries.
With all of the talk about district-authorized charters far away from our borders, let us not forget that we provide an entire school campus locally for the Albert Einstein Academy to operate. We as a district demonstrated the courage to authorize a local charter school in order to provide choice to our students and parents – courage that other districts have failed to show.
In addition, several years ago, when the state introduced its new funding formula (Local Control Funding Formula or LCFF), it significantly reduced funding to all school districts in the state. AADUSD alone lost approximately $500,000 in the first year of LCFF. In addition to this new state funding model containing funding reductions, the model itself was not fully capitalized. To this day, it is only at 90 percent of what should be funded.
Add to this fact the recent California Supreme Court decision leaving in place an appellate court ruling under Robles-Wong v. State of California that the California Constitution does not guarantee the right to an adequate level of education in terms of funding or quality, and you are left with school districts up and down the state struggling to provide quality education programming to their students.
Instead of the district operating on the “outer fringe” as described by Pfalzgraf, I characterize the district as operating on the “cutting edge” of educational practice. The district and its charter school partners are looking at an unprecedented model of cooperation to share and leverage scarce fiscal and physical infrastructure resources so we can enhance the level of education that otherwise could not be experienced by the children of Acton-Agua Dulce while attending a small school district.
At the close of his commentary, Pfalzgraf suggests the district needs to refocus on its own children. Since he does attend board meetings often, I’m mystified as to why Pfalzgraf has not picked up on the following programs and efforts that have enhanced the educational experience for our local children:
* The school board recently implemented a five-year plan that includes the introduction of a fully articulated STEAM (Science-Technology-Arts-Engineering-Math) education program funded in part by our charter schools.
* As part of the district’s effort to introduce a STEAM curriculum through virtually all grade levels, the school board also directed a reduction in class size to an intermediate goal ratio of 1 teacher to 28 students, with a the ultimate goal of 1:24 (as the state will require in five years). This is an expensive proposition, since it includes the need to create more classrooms and additional teachers, and it could not be realized without funding from our charter schools.
* The district has introduced a transitional kindergarten program that is supported by Community Collaborative Charter School through its covering of the cost of the teacher.
* In partnership with Assurance Learning Academy, the district is able to provide summer school for our high school students in need of credit recovery. The district has historically provided summer credit recovery, but can it now do so at significantly less cost after partnering with ALA.
* As of this past summer, thanks to a partnership with Community Collaborative, the district was able to resurrect its K-8 summer school program – a program that was cut years ago due to state budget cuts.
* Prior to our collaboration with Assurance Learning Academy, when the district had a rare occasion to expel students for severe behavioral issues, we had to outcast them to another school district. Today, we have the option of placing them with ALA, allowing the district to keep closer tabs on these students in order to insure compliance with our behavior contract and reevaluate them in one year for suitability to be readmitted back into our schools.
* In partnership with ALA, Community Collaborative and Pathways charter schools, the district is on the cusp of introducing a vocational track education program at Vasquez High School for our students who are not drawn to attending a university. While vocational and skills training were removed from high schools in California decades ago due to a lack of funding, it is AADUSD, with one of the smallest high schools in the region, which is taking the initiative to reinstitute such an educational option. Why? Because parents and students have been asking for such a program. This is an effort that will benefit our students and one that can be realized only through partnership with our charter schools.
As to the sustainability of the district’s budget, any inference that the district has failed to consider its sustainability if any portion of charter school funding is lost would be false. As with any responsible budget development process, the district has a strategy to expand or contract services, depending on available funding resources. In addition, the district is working on leveraging available federal dollars to support and maintain our enhanced educational efforts – specifically as they apply to our vocational track education initiative.
In closing, I urge all three candidates who are seeking a vacant seat on the AADUSD Board of Governors to ensure they include all facts and represent them accurately if they use any set of facts to support a position or opinion. While all citizens, including candidates for office, have a welcomed right to express dissenting opinions on the solutions, direction and policies currently in place by the district, I again urge all the candidates who take a dissenting viewpoint please to offer a specific set of alternative solutions, direction and policies to replace those they disagree with.
The voting public is owed that much.
Mark Distaso is president of the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Governing Board. His statements reflect his own opinions and are not intended to represent those of other school board members.
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