As far as Rabbi Mark Blazer is concerned, the system is rigged and it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a charter school to exist, let alone thrive; also, the emotional toll it places on educators, parents and students is exacting and frustrating.
That is what Blazer, founder of Albert Einstein Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences, believes as his creation struggles to remain open beyond next year.
“People are very emotional. It’s a very horrible experience, fighting when you realize how little is under your control,” said Blazer, who leads Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita. “Charters provide a huge amount of control back to parents, to students. It brings education back to accessibility, and makes it real, and makes it tangible. … The education system in California is a monolith that’s inaccessible, unfeeling, distant and disconnected, and charter schools allow parents and students to be close to the operations. When people are close to something, and they find that those relationships can be yanked away, it’s a horrible feeling.”
Those horrible feelings might have been mitigated a bit because the 450 students in grades 7-12 will have a place to go for the 2017-18 school year. This happened after the school filed an injunction against the William S. Hart Union High School District and the Los Angeles County Board of Education, which both voted against renewing the school’s charter, which expires June 30. The hearing is July 13 and will determine if the school can set aside the denials until the state Board of Education can hear the petition in mid-September.
“There will be a school next year,” Blazer declared.
When Blazer set about to create Einstein’s charter, he knew he would face widespread area resistance. The five area school districts – Hart, Saugus, Newhall, Sulphur Springs and Castaic – had little motivation to accept a non-public, non-religious school in their midst. One reason was money: The state gives public schools money for each student each day the student comes to the public school. Blazer said each child nets a school (and its district) $7,000. Multiply that by 450 students and that’s $3,150,000 not going to the district’s coffers.
Also, fewer babies were being born during the Great Recession. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, births fell 4 percent in 2009. That means there are smaller numbers of kids now in elementary school, meaning less money coming into the districts. For example, The Signal reported that the Saugus Union School District enrollment fell by 500 kids between 2009-13. The website says the district has 10,100 kids, meaning it’s fallen by another 100 students since 2013.
According to KHTS, Sulphur Springs endured a round of teacher layoffs in 2015 due to lower enrollment numbers, and Castaic’s superintendent spoke about lower enrollment in his district in 2016.
Furthermore, Blazer said, housing development in the area slowed during the Great Recession, so fewer younger families could afford to move into the area and put their fewer numbers of kids into the area schools.
As expected, Blazer said, Hart declined to charter Einstein in 2010. Newhall School District quickly denied Blazer as well, board member Christy Smith saying at the time, “There isn’t a need for a charter school to come in and help students perform. The purpose of a charter school is low performance, and we don’t have that.” (Smith, who is currently running for state Assembly, didn’t return calls seeking an update to her comments.)
Blazer strongly disagrees with Smith and points to Sec. 47601 of the state Education Code: “It is the intent of the Legislature, in enacting this part, to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure …”
“Charter schools exist for myriad reasons,” Blazer said.
Saugus denied Blazer four times. Discussions with Sulphur Springs and Castaic led Blazer to believe those districts weren’t interested, either.
It took Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District to finally grant the charter as a K-12 school, although Einstein continued to operate grades 7-12 under the Hart District (Einstein has a K-6 school that is unaffected by all of this). The Hart District board has never granted a charter and unanimously denied the renewal this time around, citing concern for the school’s finances and governing structure.
“We need to exercise our fiduciary responsibility for the rest of the Santa Clarita Valley for whom pays the cost associated to the other 22,000 students and their families and their relatives and friends,” board member Steve Sturgeon said at the time. “I’m going to move that we deny this petition. I apologize for that from the bottom of my heart, but we need to move forward for the whole community.”
The County Board of Education also denied the renewal, by a 4-3 vote, after its education staff reported that Einstein presents an unsound educational program for students to be enrolled in the school, is unlikely to successfully implement the proposed educational program, and does not provide a reasonably comprehensive description of all required elements in a charter school petition.
Also, The Signal reported, there were concerns regarding the school’s racial and ethnic balance, performance among all student groups, unrealistic financial and operational plans, delinquent audits and a lack of transparency with the school’s involvement with the larger Charter Management Organization AEALAS, Inc.
One member who voted in favor was Doug Boyd, who told the Gazette, “I voted to grant the appeal. Their problems were on the way to being resolved, and the education was sound for the children.”
Blazer isn’t giving up the fight, although it’s clearly taking a toll on him.
“Watching families go through the heartache is very frustrating for me,” he said. “We have no control over things. There’s nothing I can do. We’re taxpayers. You’d think we could do something.”