California Charter Schools & Special Education

Every state has its own rules and regulations regarding charter school organization, configuration, and authorization. In California, charter schools are public schools that take Average Daily Attendance (ADA) dollars away from the school districts their students would otherwise attend. It is unlawful for charter schools in California to charge tuition to their students for this reason.

Like all other public schools in California, charters are obligated to abide by the same standards of compliance as any traditional local education agency (LEA) with respect to civil rights and special education law. While charters often like to think of themselves as “schools without rules,” that really isn’t true.

The truth is that some regulations are made easier for charter schools in California, while others are exactly the same as those that school districts are required to follow. The problem is that a lot of charter operators and their contracted vendors either don’t know that, or they know it but don’t care.

Understanding the charter rules for a single state, much less all states and territories, is confusing enough. Recognizing the abuse of those rules can be even harder for parents of students with special needs who require accommodations as a matter of civil rights, which can include an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my experience, trying to enforce procedure in California’s charter school universe usually ends in inter-agency political backstabbing and lawsuits.

To understand charter school compliance versus the climate of charter school politics in California, one needs examples. The one that most recently prompted my return to this issue was recently covered by The Camarillo Acorn in its February 7, 2020 article, “Online charter school faces laundry list of violations.”

Online charter schools are even more challenged to comply with education law than brick-and-mortar charter schools. That said, for the chartering LEA in this particular case, Pleasant Valley School District (PVSD), to squawk about a lack of legal compliance on the part of the school to which it issued a charter, that being Peak Prep Pleasant Valley, is a grievous instance of the pot calling the kettle “black.” 

I can imagine Peak Prep’s violations must be pretty egregious for PVSD to make a fuss about them in the media, and there is truly a fuss to be made as you can see from the article. But, the reality is that the Doctrine of Unclean Hands, at least as I understand it as a lay person, may preclude PVSD from saying a whole lot, which is possibly why it’s addressing this situation in the media rather than a courtroom. So basically, black pots throwing stones at black kettles in glass houses, to mix metaphors.

I’ve had four cases from my advocacy caseload in the last couple of school years that have required due process filings, and three of them have been in PVSD. I have an active caseload that averages 20 students throughout the State, mostly in Southern California, at any given time.  These are raw statistics; take them for what you will.  But, to think these amoral jamokes are concerned about anything with this charter situation other than going down with the ship is foolish.

Read the article and you’ll see there isn’t a single, solitary concern expressed by PVSD for the welfare of students, parents, and community members. The only sentiment expressed is on behalf of allegedly overworked and underpaid district administrators who don’t have time to clean up messes made by their charters. Not that imposing on district personnel to do what a granted charter requires of the charter school’s staff is okay, but I get the same arguments from PVSD in response to asking it to give a kid with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). 

This district gets itself into enough trouble on its own. A visibly non-compliant charter that won’t get its act together, for which the district is ultimately responsible as the chartering LEA, can only shine a stronger spotlight of scrutiny upon the chartering district. In California, the chartering LEA is ultimately responsible for the conduct of its chartered entities.

In special education in California, if you have to file a compliance complaint or due process request for a charter school student, you have to name the complaint against the chartering LEA, not the actual charter school. This is because the LEA is ultimately responsible for the charter school’s procedural compliance with special education law and providing FAPE to its special education students, regardless of how the charter school configures its special education services.

In California, when it comes to special education, charters can either be “schools of the district” for the purposes of special education, in which case the chartering LEA delivers all special education, or charters can be “LEAs” for the purpose of special education and take care of it themselves. Even if they organize themselves as LEAs for the purposes of special education, there is supposed to be oversight by the chartering LEA to make sure its obligations are met, but I’ve never seen that happen proactively. It’s always a knee-jerk fit of hysterics on the part of the chartering LEA that had no idea what the charter school people were doing until a complaint came over the transom.

Based on the sordid history of charters in California thus far, I’d think that any school board reviewing a charter application that claims to organize the school as an LEA for the purposes of special education would exercise ten times the scrutiny as it would if the charter application sought to remain a school of the district for special education purposes. In my experience, the charters organized as LEAs for special education are only organized that way to keep the eyes of their chartering LEA out of their business.

Organizing the charter as an LEA for the purposes of special education is, in my experience, an effort to reduce oversight, not increase compliance. I’ve heard more than one charter operator claim over the years that they didn’t want to be taken down by a non-compliant school district’s special education department, so they chose to do it themselves, but then they have fewer resources than their chartering LEAs and can’t actually deliver.

These are the charters that tell parents to take their kids with special needs back to their districts of residence instead of ponying up the resources to actually deliver on functioning as an LEA for the purposes of special education. Nothing prevents a charter from going to its chartering LEA and saying, “We have a unique situation and need your help,” to address unusually demanding special education services, such as full-time nursing support for a medically fragile student, for example, but I’ve never seen a charter organized as an LEA for special education purposes do anything of the sort.

When you as a parent are jumping ship to a charter school because your kid with special needs is already getting shafted by your district of residence, this really doesn’t help you out. Parents changing schools to avoid having to litigate their children’s special education cases often find themselves tumbling over the edge of the frying pan and falling into a blazing fire. It’s usually a lateral move at best, and a downgrade at worst. See our previous post, “Parents Who ‘School-Hop’ Risk Making Things Worse,” for more on that.

However, PVSD seems to be the one shining the light on Peak Prep, here, which in my experience, usually means there is a fair amount of misdirection going on. By acting as the accuser, PVSD is diverting eyes away from its initial decision to charter Peak Prep in the first place. The last thing any school district wants, including this one, is an official inquiry into how they conduct their business, so when a charter draws this kind of attention, it’s usually not good for the LEA that issued the charter.

But, it’s not like Peak Prep’s organizers’ questionable history was unknown or that the quality of the charter application wasn’t apparent at the time it was made. To quote PVSD’s superintendent, “… the cast of characters is not new by any stretch …. The same group has done this before. They should and do know better.” I say the same thing to myself every time I help an attorney draft language for a due processing pleading against PVSD on behalf of a child with disabilities.

The District’s hypocrisy, here, is absolutely wretch-worthy, for sure, but this whole public display over proper education agency conduct is critically informative, and voters should be paying close attention to it. While the PVSD/Peak Prep situation is just one more log on the blazing fire of charter school politics in California, it’s also a loud message for voters in Camarillo who are looking at the school board and wondering what it thought it could gain for the local community by chartering an online charter school in the current charter climate. Based on the behaviors of other districts, chartering online schools is about generating charter fees from students in other communities, not improving the options for local families.

There are two directions in which this story takes my mind, both of which are relevant and equal in importance. First, there is the litigation of the charter school wars that played out in the Santa Clarita Valley a couple of years ago. But, also, there is a privately owned outfit based out of the San Diego area that claims to help charter schools comply with special education law. In my experience, that’s not actually what they do. When we start getting into the history of this issue, you will see San Diego come back up again later in this discussion.

First, I have to point out what happened in the Santa Clarita Valley, citing the publicly available evidence, but also sharing some first-hand information. That matter involved Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District (AADUSD) as the chartering LEA and Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts, and Sciences (AEALAS) as the charter school, which has no website because it went out of business due to fiscal insolvency at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

During the period of the Santa Clarita Valley charter school debacle, one of the students on my caseload was an AEALAS student, and nothing in the articles I can find online will ever come close to describing the hell that student and his family went through. All of the articles online are about fiscal mismanagement, which aren’t untrue, but none of them speak to the horrific special education violations that were going on. We had to involve an attorney who, over several years, had to file for due process against AADUSD for AEALAS’s improper conduct on multiple occasions.

The Santa Clarita Valley story is revealing and opens up many lines of inquiry for voters of all stripes. These issues affect the lives of our children, families, communities, and public education officials throughout the State. One of the most informative articles I’ve seen on that whole mess is, “How a tiny California school district sparked calls for a charter crackdown,” by CalMatters.org.

Rather than belabor all of it here, I encourage you to read the article. The infographic it includes is incredibly helpful. While it doesn’t go into details about the special education issues per se, they aren’t left ignored. The charter’s inadequacies with respect to special education planning briefly identified in the article played out into absolute travesties in real life, before AEALAS ultimately closed down.

For example, none of the articles mention the AEALAS official who drank too much at his place of worship one night early during the school’s first year, and basically told everyone there, most of whom were AEALAS charter school families, that our student’s special education program was going to bankrupt the charter school and close its doors in the first year. This prompted the other charter parents from the same place of worship to send anonymous hate mail (signed with simply “Albert Einstein parents”) to our student’s family telling them they should pull out so his special education program wouldn’t cost all their kids their charter school. So, way to go, religious people, for scapegoating a handicapped child to cover corrupt charter administrative fiscal mismanagement.

Clearly, no one had explained to the drunken administrator’s constituents that categorical special education dollars can only be spent on special education costs, and none of that money could be spent on general education students in the first place. Our kid came with extra money above and beyond the ADA dollars that all students bring to a charter or LEA on a per-pupil basis, specifically to defray his special education costs.

What was really happening was that AEALAS was financially mismanaged from the start. That’s why it couldn’t get chartered by the six districts and two county offices of education to which it had applied before AADUSD granted it a charter. So they targeted a kid with costlier than normal special education needs, blamed the lack of funding on him, and sicced a pack of misinformed, emotionally underdeveloped adults on him and his family. It was an act of misdirection to make the charter’s supporters think AEALAS was otherwise financially solvent all but for our student’s special education program, when the evidence is pretty clear that it never was financially solvent at all.

Our anti-bullying efforts had to start with the adults at AEALAS, not the students. A non-public agency (NPA) bowed out early on and refused to do further business with AEALAS because the assistant principal at that time refused to abide by the scientifically designed behavior plan created for our student by the NPA, preferring instead to tackle him to the ground and scream in his face (our student was 7 at the time). He then attempted to treat the NPA’s professional staffs in much the same way when they tried to get the charter to use positive behavioral intervention strategies, instead.

After the NPA’s Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) tried to explain the science of what they were trying to do, the assistant principal became verbally abusive of them and physically threatening. He scared the crap out of them, actually. They took the matter to their NPA’s ethics committee, which wrote a letter withdrawing from service on the basis of AEALAS’s ethics violations, of which the NPA refused to be a part. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since in my entire career.

The real issue was cost. An NPA-designed and -implemented behavior program isn’t cheap, though it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a lawsuit, and the taxpayers had already funded it. AEALAS was just woefully fiscally mismanaged; it was all about playing games with taxpayer monies provided for the purpose of educating children – a point that keeps getting lost in all the inter-agency infighting that’s going on.

Also helpful, and linked-to in the CalMatters.org article, is a report published by the California State Auditor in October 2017, in which the players in the Santa Clarita mess featured prominently, titled, “Charter Schools: Some School Districts Improperly Authorized and Inadequately Monitored Out‑of‑District Charter Schools.” I mean, they don’t even wait until the opening summary of their report; they call it all out in the title.

You would think that other school districts in the State would have taken better notice of these developments and the outcomes they’ve produced. Maybe, however, that’s one compelling reason why PVSD is reacting so strongly, now. If so, I have to give PVSD some credit for dealing with the situation within less than a year of issuing the charter, even if it does add to the smarmy politics of the issue.

These things, among many others, need to be sorted in public education. Ideally, PVSD wouldn’t have issued a charter to an outfit capable of performing this poorly in the first place, but second best is admitting your mistake before it’s too far gone, which PVSD appears to be doing, now.

Secondly are my concerns about the bad things creeping out the San Diego area with respect to charter school non-compliance with special education law. These charter violations place chartering LEAs in violation, whether the LEAs realize it or not.

In the PVSD/Peak Prep matter, one of the players in the current matter from the charter school was previously employed by another charter school that was shut down last year following charges filed against the owners of its parent organization, A3 Education, for pocketing $50M in taxpayer funds by the San Diego district attorney’s office. For more information on that, see “How an alleged charter school conspiracy netted $50 million.”

And, here’s where it gets super creepy/interesting, depending upon your point of view. If you look on the Peak Prep website, it opens up by telling you that enrollment is closed. I would imagine so, because another page on the site lists all of the schools shut down by the court-appointed Receiver following the A3 lawsuit.

Now, supposedly, Peak Prep has nothing to do with A3, which is the company busted in the $50M charter scam. But, the Peak Prep Pleasant Valley principal, Shalen Bishop, is listed as the principal of University Prep, which is one of the schools listed as closed on the Peak Prep site. It and the other schools listed are A3 schools.

So, if that case isn’t related to Peak Prep, why is that information on their site? That creates a link between shenanigans in the San Diego area to what’s happening in PVSD. This supports PVSD’s superintendent’s previously quoted statement about this particular “cast of characters” having done this before and knowing better.

But, it gets richer. Also in the San Diego area is a privately owned company called Special Education Assistance and Technical Support (SEATS). SEATS doesn’t have a website. The closest thing I could find was the LinkedIn profile for the wife of the husband/wife team that own and operate SEATS. There are also some job listing sites that come up when you do a search for SEATS, indicating that the agency is looking to hire resource specialists and speech-language pathologists.

But applicants be warned, SEATS reportedly does not cover travel time or mileage to dispatch their special education staffs all over Kingdom Come to serve students in independent studies and online charters. Even if a school is virtual, if a special education student of such a school still needs 1:1 specialist support to participate in instruction, or otherwise needs specialist services in person, the law requires the school to meet the needs of the child, not expect the child to warp themselves to fit the charter school’s pedagogy. The whole point of special education is to individualize the program to meet the unique needs of the student.

SEATS has a reputation for making special education service decisions on the basis of how much they are willing to spend rather than individual student need. They also have a reputation of short-paying their vendors and speaking to them disrespectfully in IEP meetings and/or screaming at them outside of the meetings if they dare to recommend anything SEATS hadn’t already approved for expenditure in advance of the meeting.

Needless to say, none of SEATS’s employees are in a union of any kind. It’s also not a coincidence that the teachers’ unions in California are backing current efforts in Sacramento to take on this whole charter mess. Most of the charters in California, virtual or otherwise, do not have unionized certificated personnel, which has contributed to high turnover rates and disclosures among professionals about what they have been experiencing.

In the course of developing this post, I spoke with a colleague still employed by a virtual charter and she’s just waiting for the State to come after her employer. All of the virtual charters are apparently starting to freak out because of all the accountability that is now coming their way. While she needs a job, she is also morally outraged by what she sees on a daily basis.

The stress of working for this charter is affecting her health and she has no union to turn to, but she also recently had to take her local school district to due process on behalf of her own child with special needs and it’s not like they’re going to hire her to work for them, after that. I’ve received similar feedback regarding work-related stress from former contractors of SEATS over the years that mirror what my colleague at the virtual charter was expressing to me the other day.

SEATS alleges to help charter schools comply with the special education regulatory requirements, but I’ve seen them mostly help charter schools try to dodge the special education regulatory requirements. SEATS personnel have been alleged to tell families that the charter school they chose cannot support their children’s special education needs because they don’t offer “those” kinds of services, so the families need to go back to their regular school districts.

The owners of SEATS once emailed me while they were on a cruise to tell me that the charter school in the case we were discussing didn’t have the money to pay for the services we were requesting. Forget that the charter was paying SEATS to make sure they were provided.

As best as I understand it, SEATS basically tells its charter school clients, “Give us your entire special education budget for the year, and we’ll make sure you don’t get in trouble.” However, the owners pay themselves out of that money, they have multiple charter clients, and they go on a whole lot of trips and cruises while kids with disabilities go without special education services that SEATS is supposed to provide, but “can’t” because their charter clients don’t have the money to pay for them.

From what I’ve seen, it’s not that SEATS is trying to keep charter schools from making mistakes; it’s that SEATS is participating in and profiting from the same charter money scams that are going on all over the State to hide mistakes, if not outright corruption, from authorities. They simply occupy the special education niche within this whole shameful legislative disaster.

One of the other charter systems being scrutinized, now, is the Inspire chain of charter schools. I had a student on my caseload a year or two ago who was an Inspire student. His online/independent study program was chartered by none other than AADUSD. Inspire also has programs chartered in the San Diego area, where the A3 $50M matter was tried. Now Inspire is under scrutiny for, among other things, lack of transparency, and I’m not the least bit surprised.

Like most of my other special education students accessing in-home instruction through independent study and/or online instruction, my Inspire student’s situation wasn’t about school of choice. The brick-and-mortar setting wasn’t accessible to this student because of his disabilities, making his living room the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which he could receive and benefit from instruction. He had previously been in an independent study charter that used SEATS for special education and, when that didn’t work out, they went to Inspire.

When things get so extreme that instruction in the home is the only way for a student to access education in a regular school district, you get a doctor’s note stating that it’s medically inadvisable for the student to attend a regular school and the IEP placement can be changed to home/hospital. The only placement more restrictive is a 24/7 residential facility with a school on its grounds. But, because every kid’s living room is the general education classroom in an online or independent study program, it’s not considered restrictive at all.

Because the general education “classroom” and special education “classroom” are the same thing in an online or independent study program, trying to write an IEP for a kid in such a program is generally a nightmare of technicalities and questions of procedure. Then there are the fights over where special education and related services will be provided.

Even though school districts will hire staffs to provide in-home services as needed to facilitate access to instruction, almost every online and independent study program I’ve ever encountered refuses to send anyone to the home for any special education purpose other than assessment, and even then, sometimes not. So, even if you’ve got a kid whose disabilities make it impossible to get them to participate in instruction and they need in-home BCBA support to overcome that behavioral challenge, most independent and online charters won’t even think of sending over a BCBA or will only do it upon threat of complaints or litigation.

These online and independent study programs will try to get IEP services pushed out into the community rather than into the student’s home, which mostly has to do with the insurance costs and the related liability of sending teachers and specialists into people’s homes. They’ll try to make the parents drive their kids to meet teachers and specialists in the community when these kids are only in home instruction because getting them out of the house is often so hard. One of my past clients would drive to the next town over with their kid to accommodate the fact that SEATS wouldn’t pay their special education teacher mileage or time to drive to their community.

Instead of individualizing the instruction, online and independent study schools tend to use their pedagogy as their excuse for not tailoring the IEP to the individual student, as required by law. So, the bottom line to all of this is that parents of children with special needs in California need to think long and hard about whether a charter school is appropriate for those children, particularly an online or independent study charter.

It’s not that charter schools, even the online and independent study ones, in theory, are a bad idea. It’s that they are improperly regulated in California, so they are becoming something other than what they were intended to be. In no small part, this is because certain elements out there don’t want their kids going to school with “those other kids,” and are trying to twist the charter system into a system of segregation.

Whoever happens to be “other” relative to the parents practicing such bigotry and teaching it to their kids, with the help of the dysfunctional charter system for profit, depends on the parents. Sometimes it’s racism. Sometimes it’s religious extremism. Other times it’s socio-economic classism. Sometimes it’s people who don’t want to be criminally prosecuted for not sending their kids to school and couldn’t possibly care any less than they already do about education.

There are enough people out there who don’t want to abide by public education’s true intent and will try to twist the system to fit their ill-intentions to do obvious harm. Such has been the case with charter schools in California, which is finally prompting a louder call for more appropriate regulations. The concern for many is all kinds of vendors profiting from the existing dysfunctional system without delivering actual educational outcomes, which circles us around back to SEATS.

The situation with Peak Prep Pleasant Valley speaks to the running concerns I’ve had for years about how SEATS is funded. PVSD is asserting that Peak Prep violated the California Education Code and the State’s labor laws by giving away its control of “hiring and termination decisions” to a third party contractor, called Educational Staffing Services (ESS). It is further asserting that Peak Prep “engaged in fiscal mismanagement” by giving over its administrative operations to yet another 3rd party contractor, Accel Schools, which is owned by the same guy who signed the contract between Peak Prep and ESS as ESS’s CEO.

According to PVSD, Peak Prep gave Accel control of its funds and failed to complete requested financial documents. PVSD can’t see how Peak Prep is using its funds because its operating budget is “obscured by a lump sum payment in exchange for the program services, all delivered by Accel.” This is, to the best of my understanding, the same model as how SEATS gets funded.

Like Peak Prep giving its money to Accel in a lump sum, which then shows up in its budget as a single line item with no detail on how that money was spent, SEATS’s clients are giving it lump sums that represent their entire special education budgets for the school year. I have to wonder just how many details they are sharing with their charters and how many of those details the charters are sharing with their chartering LEAs about where that money is going. I have reason to suspect that it’s paying for cruises rather than special education services.

To be fair to vendors and contractors who serve charter schools in California, it’s honest to say that the laws are a mess and even the most well-intended vendor is at risk of getting into trouble over finances just because of how poorly regulated charter schools are in California. Rabbi Mark Blazer, who spearheaded the failed AEALAS endeavor in the Santa Clarita Valley, was quick to point out “bad charter policy” in California, and he’s not wrong that California’s charter policies are bad.

It’s just that most of the charters out there, in my experience, see the bad policies and weak regulations as exploitable opportunities for profit. The children and families horribly affected by their actions are just collateral damage, not the intended targets. Students are just a means to a financial end to these people. The harm done is all the same regardless of intent, and it’s far-reaching.

A whole bunch of very crooked people have now stolen way too many taxpayer dollars in California that were invested by the public into education. California has created a charter school system that is more about moving money around, mostly into the pockets of the wrong people, than educating students. While Betsy De Vos may find that acceptable, most Californians – heck, most Americans – do not.

A system like this entices the least savory people on the planet to parasitically attach themselves to it wherever there is an exposed spot, such as the loophole-laden charter laws in California, and suck the system dry before it realizes how much it has hemorrhaged. The cases making it to media make that clear. The chief perpetrator in the $50M A3 scandal is an Australian national.

The unspeakable number of dollars spent on litigation, whether its families suing to get special education services or school districts suing each other over ADA dollars, takes funding out of the classroom and creates overworked and underpaid certificated personnel. This is a voter issue that isn’t getting enough attention, but with the election coming up later this year, Californians will have the chance to hold the State and their local school boards accountable and elect or re-elect officials who will clean up these messes in a timely, responsible way.


 

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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