By Rebecca Nutile / Alianza North County
Public schools have traditionally been known as the great equalizer, the cornerstone of a great democracy. Public schools are the place where we, as a community, are supposed to set aside religious and political differences and work for the greater good of the community’s children.
They are supposed to be secular and free of partisan politics. While individual teachers and administrators, as private citizens, hold their own political views, they are not allowed to promote any particular candidate in the school when the school is receiving public funds. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
In today’s world of education “reform,” the charter school sector has grown beyond its original intent of being a laboratory for public schools, into networks of poorly-regulated schools of varying quality with a quasi-public status. In these publicly funded/privately managed schools, subtle and not-so-subtle partisan politics often go unchecked. And while charter schools are not required by law to adhere to many parts of the education code, they are supposed to be held to the same standards as traditional public schools in the areas of political partisanship and the separation of church and state.
Ideologues have found charter schools to be convenient, cost-effective vehicles because they can use taxpayer funds to finance their endeavor while being subjected to only limited public oversight. Charters appoint their own school boards and keep democratically elected school boards at arm’s length once their charter has been approved. These private school boards tend to be composed of those who have a similar ideology as their founders. The public has no say in who sits on a charter school board.
In Escondido, Escondido Charter High School, Heritage Elementary and Heritage Digital Academy have become points of controversy and division in the community. Most know them as the controversial school with strong ties to conservatives in Escondido City government that took over a heavily-used library branch. At the time the Council voted to close the branch (4-1), there were millions in the City’s reserve fund that would have covered several years of operating costs. Additionally, a non-profit offered a substantial amount toward the operating funds.
Yet the four conservative members of the council voted to close it, citing lack of funds. Members of the community fought the closure. Many had helped create and run the library branch and viewed it as an indispensable asset to the community. After waiting for the smoke to clear after the closure vote, the charter school signed a multi-year lease with the City, effectively taking over a public asset for their private use.
Not only did the charter school acquire a public asset for their private use, on numerous occasions this group of taxpayer-funded schools has skirted, and likely crossed the line, into partisan politics. Following are some examples:
Blatant electioneering by the GOP on school grounds.
In May of 2010, a political rally was held on school grounds for gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. Whitman, Mitt Romney, Darrell Issa and Pete Wilson were all in attendance in addition to well-known area conservatives. While the rally was held on a Saturday, it’s questionable in the least, to dress the school’s mascot in an anti-Democratic Party t-shirt (A shirt that says “Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Democrat”) and surround it by cheerleaders in school uniforms. Adults in the photo appear to be leading the students in cheers for Republicans and against Democrats. I’ve been unable to find any evidence of attempts by the school to balance GOP influence with alternative political points of view. (Photos can be viewed here)
In 2007, Roger Hedgecock, a well-known area conservative radio host broadcast his program from the school.
When the school’s American Spirit Theater opened, the U-T stated “… Schedules permitting, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or Rep. Brian Bilbray will speak to students electronically Thursday. Roger Hedgecock will broadcast from the campus during the open house from 3 to 6 p.m.” Additionally, also according the U-T, in an article entitled “Thumbs Down on the Border Flick,” the Minutemen were allowed to show their film “Border: A Man, His Dog and the End of America” in the American Spirit Theater.
Roger Hedgecock also signed his most recent book “The 2008 Conservative Voter’s Field Guide: Immigration” in the theater’s lobby. The author of the article wrote, “When I questioned the director of the school, Dennis Snyder, about supporting a film promoted by aggressively anti-immigrant individuals and racist groups, he disagreed with my assessment of the Minutemen and said he’d seen the film and thought it was ‘very good, educational and worth seeing.’ ”
The school’s founder took students on a trip to a rally protesting illegal immigration in Washington D.C.
Mr. Snyder and his group of students were interviewed on the Lou Dobbs Show alongside Mr. Hedgecock and a leader of the Minutemen. According to a transcript this was a rally of 400 people, most of whom had accompanied one conservative talk show host or another, an odd choice for a Spring trip with high school students.
From the Lou Dobbs transcript (April 26, 2005):
DOBBS: A rally this week in Washington is aimed at drawing attention to the rising illegal alien crisis in this country. The group says their message is simple: secure our borders and secure them now. Lisa Sylvester reports from Washington.
[ … ]
CHRIS SIMCOX, THE MINUTEMAN PROJECT: With the reports of the 9/11 Commission, the reports from the FBI, the CIA, all of our national security organizations admit that even now, three years after September 11, the greatest threat to our national security is the border with Mexico.
SYLVESTER: Dennis Snyder brought students from his California Charter School to lobby Congress. He says the growing illegal population is draining state resources.
DENNIS SNYDER, ESCONDIDO CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL: Obviously the taxpayers pay for our public education. And so all the influx of illegal aliens and students that are affecting our schools, which causes the taxpayers to build more schools.
SYLVESTER: Supporters of a tight U.S. border are growing in number and becoming more organized, a point they hope Washington begins to notice.
The IRS requires organizations with a 501 C3 status to check off the “yes” or “no” box to the question “Did the organization engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.”
A search of this public tax document 990 shows that “no” was checked on the 2010 taxes, the year the Whitman GOP political rally was held onsite and the mascot and cheerleader were participants in that rally.
Right-wing politicians are frequent visitors to the school.
Students may work as interns for Marie Waldron, a Republican Assembly woman. Waldron, as an Escondido city councilperson, cast a vote to close the library branch that would later become Heritage Digital Academy. Heritage Digital Academy’s website stated that the school “… signified a rare occurrence for public schools: a partnership between public and private entities, all unified on the same front and quoted Waldron saying “It’s rare to have everyone so aligned and that’s why it’s unique,” said Assemblywoman Waldron, expressing her support. The community’s general public was certainly not part of that “everyone” who was so “aligned.”
While there are numerous references online to Republican politicians visiting the school, promoting and giving money to the school, there is no evidence of any prominent Democrats visiting the school or offering internship opportunities such as the one Waldron offers. It is conceivable that Democrats are not eager to interact with the school’s administration, yet shouldn’t the school be trying to foster a balance of influence and opportunity?
It is no secret this school is run by conservatives with close ties to Escondido City Hall. And of course, every founder and employee has the right to his/her own politics and political philosophies, but those preferences should be checked at the door when they walk into a school that would not exist but for taxpayer funding.
Perhaps schools that push a particular political ideology should seek private funds for promoting that ideology.
Legality aside, the ethics of using our public schools as a training ground for a particular political party is highly questionable. Using scarce educational funds to further a partisan political agenda when the real public schools in our communities are hurting so badly is unconscionable.
Rebecca Nutile is a resident of Escondido. She is a public education advocate and the parent of three young children.