It’s no secret that these are tough times for California public education. As an Aug. 28 Los Angeles Times article noted, although the state budget adopted in June gave schools the same funding this year as last year, revenues for the state are still down 10% below projections, which could mean mid-year December cuts in public education funding of up to $1.5 billion, or $260 per student.
To combat this fiscal crisis, Inyo and Mono counties Offices of Education are getting creative and looking to a new funding opportunity: charter schools. Inyo has taken advantage of California Education Code 47605.1 (3G), which allows for statewide rather than county or contiguous-county charters for federal programs. This means Inyo can partner with federal programs to open charter schools in major cities, such as Los Angeles.
“This is now our fourth year in operation,” said Inyo County Office of Education and Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer. “We have 12 sites in LA and about 1,200 kids.” Sites include East LA, Pasadena, Palmdale, San Bernardino and Watts, among others. The students range from 18-24, and between 60-100 students attend school at each site. All sites are partnerships between Inyo County and Youth Build, a youth and community development program that provides job training and education opportunities for high school dropouts.
While these schools are physically located in LA, technically they belong to Inyo County. “These students are all considered Inyo County students because the funds from Sacramento flow through my office and we distribute them,” said McAteer. The charter school program receives an overall $8 million in funds, including about $1 million “unencumbered” dollars that the Inyo Office of Education is free to use as it chooses. “We do all the business services for the employees down in LA,” McAteer explained. “We cut all payroll, do all the paperwork associated with accounts payable/receivable, and provide special education for those kids. Because we do this efficiently, we’re able to put back into Inyo that $1 million a year.”
This extra money has spared the Office of Education any cuts this year. In fact, unlike any other Inyo district, the Office of Education gave its employees a 3% raise. “Four years ago the Office of Education budget was $12 million,” said McAteer. “This year it’s around $20 million, including the $8 million from the charter.” So, while state funding continues to drop, the charter continues to bring in more money.
The charter program has been so successful that Inyo is looking to pursue sites in the Bay Area, which could add another 200-300 students to the 1,200 currently counted toward Inyo. Putting these numbers in context, there are currently 2,800 children in Inyo’s public education system; about 1,000 of them in high school. Already charter school students in LA exceed high school students in Inyo. With the addition of new sites, charter students may eventually exceed the total number students physically located in Inyo.
But the benefit of the charter school program isn’t just monetary, said McAteer. “It’s phenomenal: 550 kids graduated last year. Kids who wouldn’t normally have a diploma or a job skill have one today.”
Mono County is following in Inyo’s footsteps, partnering with state-funded Urban Core of San Diego to found a charter this year. “So far we’re having an average daily attendance of 174 students,” reported Mono County Office of Education Superintendent Stacey Adler. Mono County’s numbers are generally smaller than Inyo’s, with 174 charter students to 474 Mono high school students, and a total of about 1,800 students in the Mono public school system. The Urban Core student body is “pretty unique,” said Adler; “half the students got involved with gangs, or came from a really bad home situation, and the other half are here on political asylum from countries like Africa and Iraq.”
The Mono Office of Education has filed its first attendance record, which is necessary to receive state funding for the charter school, and anticipates approximately $155,000 in restricted revenue for the charter and other special education programs, and $80,000 in unrestricted revenue to be spent in Mono County.
Unlike Inyo, Mono isn’t looking to expand its charter sites next year. “Right now we have one school and we’re good,” Adler said. “At this stage of the game it’s definitely win-win.” She added, “It is more work for the officer who has to oversee one more district, because our fiscal oversight responsibilities extend to this school as well.” But overall Adler felt “honored to be involved with a school like this, which gives kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance for an education.”
It seems that at least for the foreseeable future non-contiguous charter schools are here to stay. As McAteer put it, “In order to make it these days in public education, you have to be entrepreneurial. You have to do things outside of the box, not just rely on Sacramento. That’s what we’re doing.”