California’s Charter Schools the Wild West

The following is the second of four parts on California charters 

Why California’s charter school sector is called the Wild West

By Carol Burris

Bryan Juan was falling behind in high school credits. Desperate to graduate on time, he left his public high school and enrolled in Desert Sands Charter High School. “I started off okay,” he said. “But even though I went almost every day and worked hard, I could not catch up and do all the paper packets — especially on my own. I got discouraged. I left and went back to my public school.”

Bryan was not alone in his failure at Desert Sands. The 2015 four-year graduation rate of the charter was 11.5 percent. Even worse, over 42 percent of the students who should have graduated that year dropped out of school altogether.

Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website. Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif., address given on its own website. Bryan’s classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart, nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sand’s address.

Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning. On its website, Learn4Life tells prospective families that it connects students to resource centers so that they can receive one on one instruction because “no two students are alike.”

Bryan’s classmates, Mayra and Edith, who also returned to the public school from Desert Sands, found their experience at the charter to be anything but “personalized.”  They described education at Desert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit. Although students can make an appointment for help with the packet, they are required to come by only once a week.

Of the 15 charters authorized to Learn4Life operated corporations, 13 are required to operate high-school grade levels. Each school has its own name, principal and sponsoring district, but uniqueness ends there. The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores. They advertise themselves with nearly identical websites with the same pictures, quotes, descriptions of program, principal letters and a common phone number and address. The homepage of the Desert Sands High School is indistinguishable from the homepage of Diego Valley, as well as the homepages of 11 other high schools that are part of the chain. All that differs is the name of the school.

Diego Plus is one of the many corporations operated by Learn4Life. Diego Plus and its three Learn4Life charter schools (Diego Valley, Diego Hills and Diego Springs) are defendants in lawsuits filed by Grossmont Union High School District, San Diego Unified School District and Sweetwater Union High School District. The three charters opened their resource centers in the three complaining districts without notifying them. They were authorized by and are the responsibility of the Julian, Dehesa and Borrego Springs school districts, each of which receive considerable income for supervising these charters located far beyond their boundaries.

In total, the three Learn4Life Diego Plus charters enroll almost 2,000 students. Their respective four-year 2015 graduation rates are 10.8 percent19.3 percent and 0 percent. Forty-five percent of the students in that Diego Valley cohort dropped out of the charter school. It does not appear that long-distance supervision of storefront schools is working out well for kids.

Transparency and accountability, as well as legal efforts to force legal compliance, have been stymied and complicated by the continual changes in Learn4Life corporate names and addresses. A recent petition to the court on behalf of the Grossmont Union High School District lists 13 corporate names located at the same Learn4Life address. In 2014, there were no less than eight not-for-profit corporations listed at that Lancaster address that filed tax returns [1].

Each of those eight corporations received funding from the state of California. During the 2013-14 school year, the sum of all government grants given to those eight related corporations was $61,476,306. About 11,000 students are enrolled in the 15 Learn4Life schools [2].

Officers of the Learn4Life corporations play musical chairs with titles, often receiving compensation from several different corporations. For example, Steve Gocke is listed as the superintendent of Desert Sands Charter. In 2014, Gocke received $139,750 for serving as the secretary for the two different Learn4Life charter schools. Dante Simi served as the chief executive of six different Learn4Life related corporations and the CFO of two others. According to the organizations’ 990s, his 2014 compensation was $270,200. Dante’s son-in-law Skip Hansen serves as a senior vice president, and received a six-figure salary for his services. Simi’s wife, Linda, is also listed as a key employee of one of the corporations.

Perhaps all of the above attempts at obfuscation might be forgiven if the schools were actually getting the job done. But they’re not.  The average 2015 graduation rate for the schools was 13.73 percent. Two of the schools had graduation rates of 0 percent.  Dropout rates for cohorts ranged from 27.6 percent to 53.9 percent.

Are these alarming rates solely a result of serving at-risk students? Although Learn4Life advertises that its mission is to serve students who dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, its schools take students as early as ninth-grade, including those who simply want a quick and easy way to graduate early. There is no requirement for prior failure before entering the schools.

Learn4Life schools are not an anomaly. There are 225 independent learning charter schools comprising nearly 20 percent of all charters in California. In San Diego County alone there are 35, including three associated with Learn4Life. The 2014 graduation rate for all of the students enrolled in San Diego’s independent center charters, including the more successful home-school programs, was only 44 percent.

Given the results, why are so many Independent Learning charter corporations springing up across the state? Unlike brick and mortar charters, independent learning centers are relatively easy to set up and run.  They appeal to disadvantaged students who want to work and finish high school, drop-outs who want to return to school, students who have emotional or physical health issues, home-schoolers, and teenagers who would prefer to not have to get up in the morning and go to school.

In addition, running independent learning centers can be very lucrative. One of San Diego County’s largest networks of independent learning centers is the Altus Institute. It advertises on billboards and runs ads in movie theaters and on television.  Altus operates Audeo Charter, Audeo Charter II, the Charter School of San Diego and Laurel Academy. It has a total K-12 enrollment of about 3,000 students and takes in tens of millions of dollars in state and federal revenue. Like Learn4Life, its learning centers are located in malls and office buildings. Its younger students are home-schooled.

In 2014 compensation for Altus Institute President Mary Bixby was $371,160 — exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students. Bixby is a board member of the charters, a full-time employee of one of the schools and also receives compensation for being “on-loan” to two others Altus schools. Such obvious conflicts of interest would be illegal in a public school.

Financial benefits extend beyond those who run the independent learning charter schools. They are also cash cows for the far-flung districts that authorize them.

Julian, a tiny elementary district, has fewer than 300 students that attend its schools, and it has not had a contested school board election since the 1990s. Nevertheless, there are nearly 3,000 students who do “independent study” at dozens of “resource” or “learning centers” operated by three corporations under charters that Julian sponsors, yet which operate outside its boundaries. A uniform complaint filed against the district identified that Julian receives more than $1,542,552 from charter oversight fees, creating a bloated administration whose salaries depend upon the oversight funding, thus creating conflicts of interest in regard to the fulfillment of oversight duties.

Such conflicts of interests have led to criminal behavior. In February 2016, former Mountain Empire superintendent, Steve Van Zant, pleaded guilty to felony conflict of interest charges after it was discovered that he was personally receiving 5 percent of the revenue generated from oversight fees from the 13 charter schools his district authorized beyond its boundaries. In addition, some of those charters hired the Van Zant consulting firm, EdHive, which provided services to the charters. Its website bragged that it could find authorizing districts for the those who wanted to open Independent Learning Centers that would save the charter schools money.

When the Van Zant story broke, the California Charter School Association agreed that the case raised legitimate concerns. However, legislation to address the problem of districts authorizing charters in other districts, and even other counties, was opposed by the California Charter School Association (CCSA) and vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. A present bill on the governor’s desk, SB 739, would put a small restriction on a district’s ability to open independent learning center charters in other districts by ensuring that the sponsoring district is fiscally solvent (does not have a negative certification), thus decreasing the profit generating motive.

Despite the recent scandals, California Charter School Association Advocates, the political arm of CCSA, is opposing SB 739, along with AB 709, which would subject charters to the conflict of interest and transparency rules that public schools follow.

Although the original intent of the independent charters may well have been to scoop up at-risk kids and give them a second chance, the lack of criteria for student placement, along with inadequate regulations have led to obvious abuses. There are now far too many independent learning charter schools whose operators, some with no background or expertise in education, make substantial salaries, while cash-strapped districts grab students and revenue from other districts miles away.

Worst of all, the students who need the most support and daily guidance from adults are in charters that do not require much contact at all.

Mike Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, is fighting what he considers to be the predatory practices of yet one more independent learning charter, Epic Charter, which has entered his district. His powerful statement to the Orange County Board of Education can be found here. Matsuda, who has been recognized for his leadership by Education Week, understands how tough it is to serve at-risk students well.

“Educating and engaging marginalized students who often suffer from chronic depression due to poverty, family dysfunction, or exposure to emotional or physical violence in the neighborhood is a complex process that’s definitely not cheap,” Matsuda said.

His Anaheim High School Program for at-risk youth and former dropouts directed by counselor/social worker, Joe Casas, provides emotional support and ensures that students have access to enriching electives, the community, field trips and the extracurricular life of the school.  “All of this makes kids feel as if they have a home with us,” Casas said.

Meanwhile, Bryan, Edith and Mayra who came to the program from Learn4Life are now making good progress toward graduation.

“Teachers are more on my case to get work done.  I come every day and if I have personal problems, there are counselors to help. It’s more supportive here.” Mayra said.  Edith agreed. “Here there are assemblies and field trips and people to talk to. I feel like I’m home.”

[1] The information on grants and salaries was obtained by a search of 990s using Guidestar.

[2] Enrollment numbers as well as graduation rates and dropout rates can be found at