School leaders within Inspire — a homeschool charter network targeted for a state audit into alleged fiscal malfeasance — recently described how it’s difficult to ensure students meet statewide learning standards because parents choose which curricula and resources to use.
During a Nov. 8 staff meeting of teachers, when talking about how teachers can enforce state learning requirements, a school leader said: “We don’t really have those answers. It’s stuff we have to, kind of, trial and error,” according to records reviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The meeting was held for staff of Pacific Coast Academy, an Inspire school authorized and overseen by Dehesa School District in San Diego County. School officials were instructing teachers on how to prepare for an impending audit of the school ordered by Dehesa.
The meeting provides a window into how Inspire has been trying to assure staff and families of their school’s sustainability, weeks after eight county superintendents called for the state to investigate Inspire’s practices, the state’s charter school association expelled Inspire from its membership and Inspire’s founder resigned without explanation.
These events followed a series of stories by the Union-Tribune that drew attention to questionable financial and organizational practices by Inspire, including heavy borrowing and borrowing among its schools and Inspire-affiliated corporations, and previous expenditures of school funds on items such as Disneyland annual passes and dinner theater tickets for students and parents.
On Nov. 25, a Union-Tribune reporter emailed Inspire spokesman Chris Bertelli a list of questions about the Nov. 8 staff meeting. Neither Bertelli nor any other Inspire official answered the questions despite repeated requests.
An attorney representing Pacific Coast Academy emailed the reporter this month, threatening to “pursue all legal remedies” against her and the Union-Tribune if the paper does not return “confidential student education records.” The records the Union-Tribune reviewed of the meeting did not contain student records.
Homeschool freedom, state standards
Inspire schools are homeschool charters, meaning they give parents freedom to choose how to educate their children and the curricula they use. Parents do so under the supervision of a credentialed teacher who meets with students once a month.
Inspire credits parents $2,600 or more a year of school funds per child to spend on any of the thousands of approved vendors, who offer classes, curriculum, extracurricular activities, field trips and more.
Some parents said they chose Inspire for this freedom and funding to customize their children’s education. Many said they dislike how traditional public schools force the same curriculum and teaching methods on all students even though students learn differently.
But the degree of educational freedom that Inspire gives to parents is sometimes at odds with the duty Inspire has, as a public charter school, to ensure students are learning according to state standards, Inspire officials and teachers said at the Nov. 8 meeting.
California’s tests are based on the Common Core standards, a nationwide set of standards adopted by California in 2010.
A training leader for Pacific Coast Academy said she has encountered parents who did not want to use Common Core to teach math to their kids, because they weren’t familiar with it. She has had to work with families to somehow implement Common Core because that’s what their students will be tested on.
“If your family picks some random curriculum that doesn’t cover all the standards, it is then your job to find things that fill those holes (rather) than just saying, ‘good luck’ and that’s it,” the leader said. Her name was not provided in the record reviewed by the Union-Tribune.
“We are going to be changing our learning plans because it’s just not what we want it to be,” she said.
Studying for the audit
In addition to learning plans, Pacific Coast Academy teachers were trained on several other things officials said they need to know for Dehesa’s audit.
A staff member told teachers to make sure they have the appropriate teaching credentials and to make sure their parents know that they have credentials. The teachers also must make sure their student learning plans are grade-level appropriate and that they’re writing down the learning plans, the staff member said.
Mike Fine, CEO of a state agency that audits school districts and charter schools, said in an interview that, for audits in general, it is not wrong to prepare school staff ahead of time for an audit. Fine, who leads the state agency that will also audit Inspire, was not commenting on Inspire.
All auditors are looking for is honest answers, he said.
“‘I don’t know’ can be an honest answer, but that raises questions about training regarding the job they are assigned, not training on how to answer an auditor’s question,” Fine said.
“The auditor’s going to be skilled to figure out what did they learn yesterday in the preparation versus what they do every day,” he said. “A skilled auditor’s going to figure that out.”
“You cure it, and you move forward,” he said.
‘For money reasons’
During a separate QA session at the Nov. 8 meeting, Pacific Coast Academy teachers asked Inspire officials for assurances that they could give to parents that their school would not close, according to the records reviewed by the Union-Tribune.
“If they point out that we did something that, you know, that we should’ve been doing differently, we can learn from it and make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes moving forward,” he said.
“It’s a relationship. As long as they believe that we’re ethical and we’re doing the right thing for our kids … they would want to continue because it is mutually beneficial,” Lawrence said of Dehesa.
Some prosecutors, state legislators and education officials have noted that relationships between small school districts strapped for cash and charter school networks looking to expand are ripe for abuse.
Prosecutors said that the leaders of A3 Education — who were indicted in May for allegedly stealing $50 million from the state by operating fraudulent charter schools — targeted small districts to authorize their schools, because small districts likely have limited experience in charter oversight. Small districts also have a financial incentive to provide little or no oversight of such charters, some argue.
“I can’t get into every board member’s mind about why they made these decisions, but you know, they got data and information that they felt that it was just, I guess, time for a new direction and they made that decision,” Lawrence said at the meeting. “There’s really not much beyond that I can share.”
Nichols could not be reached for comment.
Contract records show that Inspire District Office is Inspire Ohio’s exclusive management organization. It provides the Ohio school with several operational services, as it does for the Inspire schools in California.
A May copy of Inspire Ohio’s five-year budget projections showed that the school has a $1.4 million loan from Inspire District Office, as well as projected enrollment for this year of 150 full-time students.