Letter presented to MMCS, 2/7/12

An open letter from

fellow parents and neighbors

As parents of children enrolled in Santa Cruz public schools, we respond with dismay to the news that plans for another elementary charter school petition are in the works. Like you, we have thought long and hard about the educational alternatives in this area; like you, we spent time investigating local public and private programs trying to see into the future and choose the place that would be just right for our children, our families, and our community. These are difficult decisions for every parent. However, we strongly believe that a petition for a new charter school, if approved, would have profoundly negative effects on children in the other public schools. With all due respect for the dedication and thought you have already put into your planning, we ask that you take a moment to hear our concerns before proceeding further with a petition that is sure to be divisive in this community and to be met with opposition.

The first impact is budgetary. Santa Cruz City Schools has already planned for a $2M budget reduction in the coming year (mostly taken through deferred maintenance, cutbacks in adult education, and staff layoffs); another $2M cut may be forthcoming if the governor’s tax vote fails. While a robust network of community and parental fundraising supports school arts, music, and Life Lab programs, as well as school libraries and smaller class sizes than state norms in many grade levels, private donations cannot fill all gaps. A new public charter school enrolling 100 students who otherwise would have attended SCCS (not counting those who would have gone to a private school anyway), redirecting approximately $6,000 in state/local allocations per student, would remove $600,000 from the district’s budget: the payroll for all the elementary school librarians and teacher’s aides put together. To the counter-argument that per-student funding should follow the student, we point out that many educational expenditures are pooled: just because librarians may be serving fewer students, they are no less necessary. The bottom line is that the sum of the student allocations you remove from the other elementary schools will reduce their budgets correspondingly—and, ironically, make it that much more difficult for us to deliver to all children the art, music, and holistic-child programs that Montessori schools pride themselves on.  If the charter petition will request spatial accommodation from the city or county, this will have further negative impacts that we can only guess at.

The second major impact has to do with diversity and equity. As you are aware, a charter petition must demonstrate how the new school will reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community it serves. The charter schools that already exist in Santa Cruz do not have a stellar record of maintaining diversity. “Diversity,” in our view, means much more than educating children with a range of physiognomies and skin colors, and featuring a multicultural curriculum. It means attending to the particular needs of minorities in the local community. In Santa Cruz, the majority minority is Latino: a significant portion of these families is Spanish-speaking, and another sizable portion is lower-income (a category which of course includes other ethno-racial groups as well). How does your school plan to include the children of these families—many of whose parents work multiple jobs and are not able to participate in the life of their child’s school? Will it have Spanish-speaking staff and teachers specially trained to help English learners? A related question has to do with children who have learning and/or physical disabilities, who are often “counseled out” of charter schools. These children and families require expensive programs that district schools must, and do, support.

The major figures in the history of alternative education, from Maria Montessori to John Holt and Paolo Freire, linked their work to a social justice agenda.  Charter school proponents often protest claims that they siphon resources from public schools by pointing out that they are public schools. We would like to know, though, what segment of the community you see yourselves serving: all children, or only some?

It has not been our experience that sending our children to Santa Cruz City Schools has snuffed out their love of learning or turned them into test-taking automatons. However, there is no one-size-fits-all education. We would only ask, before you assume the worst about local elementary schools that work with a high number of English learners–and therefore have lower test scores than those in other parts of the county with different demographics–that you visit them and see the soul beneath the test scores. The Dos Alas Dual Immersion Program at DeLaveaga has been successful in large part because it understands the language skills of its students as a communal asset rather than a liability. In addition, the district boasts an alternative elementary school, Monarch Community School, which emphasizes multi-age and small-group learning. All of these public school programs welcome visitors, and their webpages contain a wealth of information.

Thank you for listening to our concerns.

Sincerely,

[a small number of signatory parents]

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