As the charter school movement faces outside political pressure that could stem its growth, some within the charter school industry are making strong allegations of unethical practices against one of its own: Inspire Charter School.
Critics of Inspire accuse the charter of using unethical practices to entice parents and students to leave their current charter schools and go to Inspire. A spokesperson for Inspire says the criticism is the result of the charter school’s “incredible growth.”
Inspire Charter runs a network of home schools operating throughout California; some of those schools are authorized by the Dehesa School District.
Carlene Leeper is a local parent who homeschools six of her eight children through Inspire.
“I like the freedom to be able to help my kids and teach them according to their learning styles and their needs,” Leeper said.
Through Inspire, parents receive instructional funds totaling $2,800 per year for students who are in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the charter school. High school students can receive $3,000 every year. That money is used for curriculum and extra-curricular activities.
Leeper does not get the money directly but can choose from a list of vendors, approved by Inspire, to buy curriculum for her children. The curriculum she chooses to purchase for each child must meet state standards and includes books, technology like computers or software, educational field trips, music and art lessons.
Julie Contreras is an Inspire Charter teacher, who reviews Leeper’s choices. She says she visits the Leeper family every three weeks to make sure all the state standards are being met.
“I look at all the work they have completed and throughout the course of a year, I collect work samples,” Contreras said, “I’ll have a full rounded portfolio…[that] the children have completed.”
But critics from within the charter school movement have come forward, questioning Inspire Charter’s practices.
Jeff Rice is the Founder and Director of A+Personalized Learning Network Association, a statewide membership association whose mission is to advance and support schools with personalized learning for students.
Rice said the association invited Inspire Charter to be a member in the 2015-2016 school year, based on a commitment to meet high standards of accountability and academic excellence.
“As our relationship with Inspire evolved over time, we found that there were numerous reports of questionable practices,” Rice said. “Primarily it had to do with the use of public funds as well as recruiting practices.”
By the end of this school year, after finding those practices were not being remedied, Rice said the association did not renew Inspire’s membership.
“We did not feel they were meeting our high standards of accountability and excellence,” Rice told NBC 7 Investigates.
Another critic is Terri Schiavone, the Founder and Director of Golden Valley Charter School in Ventura. Schiavone says her school is one of many that are losing students to Inspire Charter.
“They target a school and then they try to get as many of their teachers and students as possible,” Schiavone said.
Schiavone said families and teachers are enticed by incentives like using instructional funds to buy tickets to Disneyland and other theme parks. Schiavone says there is a lack of oversight and accountability.
No one is making sure teachers are checking up on students’ work, and Schiavone says parents can buy whatever they want from vendors who she says are not fingerprinted or even qualified.
“It’s very desirable for some parents to enroll in schools in which nobody’s looking over their shoulder,” said Schiavone. “They can utilize whatever curriculum they want, including religious curriculum, which is illegal if using public dollars.”
But parent Leeper says Contreras makes sure there is no religious content in any material she buys with instructional money.
“She’s on top of it,” says Leeper. Leeper also says she is not free to buy whatever she wants. “There are checks and balances...and Inspire is really good about making sure that we stay within the framework.”
Contreras said she had heard about the allegations before moving to Inspire, and she was leery. So, she did her own research and found Inspire was “legitimate,” and “really captures the heart of homeschooling.”
Contreras said Inspire does offer more funds than her previous charter school offered, but that there’s nothing unethical about it.
“It’s because they have set up their funds so that they can best serve homeschoolers. It’s not because they’ve set up funds to bribe them,” the Inspire Charter teacher said.
But while supporters defend Inspire, the charter school has made moves to change its operations. It ended the option of using instructional funds to buy tickets to Disneyland and other theme parks last year, according to a letter sent to parents.
Then on August 1, Inspire closed its “Enrichment Adventure Program.” Through the program, parents could use their instructional funds for dinner theater productions, tickets to the Smithsonian, for example, when a family is on an out of state field trip.
The school also closed its “Enrichment Adventure,” places Inspire Charter said it rented for students to meet and socialize.
In a letter to parents, Inspire Charter said the closure was, “not for legal reasons, but for political and/or public perception.”
“Over the last several years… court decisions and the political climate have made the [Enrichment Adventure] program more difficult to implement...There is no definition in the law on what constitutes a resource center, and differing views in different jurisdictions could result in adverse consequences for our schools. We must do what is in the best interest of Inspire Charter, California homeschool families, and the charter school movement so we have made the difficult decision to close our EA Program.”
To read the full letter, click here.
“Homeschooling has become so popular across the nation, I think it is a target for some people,” said Krystin Demofonte, Inspire Charter’s Senior Director of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the principal of one of Inspire’s charter schools.
Demofonte and other charter school advocates point to political pressure, specifically with two bills pending in the state legislature that could reign in the growth of charter schools, Assembly Bills 1505 and 1507.
AB 1505 would give school districts more discretion to approve or deny new charter school petitions, as well as narrow the existing appeals process for denied applications. AB 1507 would close a loophole that allows some school districts to increase their budgets by approving charter schools resource centers outside their district.
Demofonte also feels critics from within the charter school movement may be jealous of Inspire Charter’s success.
“I think it’s probably because they’re losing money and their school is probably not as successful as it was,” said Demofonte. “If you ask the average person out there, I think Inspire has a really good reputation.”
“If a student in my school wants to go to another charter school because they think it’s a better fit, I don’t have a problem with that, “ said Schiavone, “The problem is when a school is enticing students through unethical manners and now that kid went from a school that manages the education provided to somewhere where nobody’s paying attention to them anymore.”
Schiavone points to Inspire’s most recent state test scores as proof that the school’s students are not properly educated.
“They are so far below the performance of state levels,” she said.
NBC 7 Investigates reviewed the School Accountability Card for Inspire South, one of the charter school’s locations in Southern California, and found in the 2017-2018 school year, only 38 percent of students in third through eighth grades and eleventh grade met or exceeded state standards in Math. Half of those students met or exceeded state standards in English Language Arts.
To see Inspire Charter’s test scores, click here.
Demofonte said it is difficult to assess students who are choosing an alternative type of education. She also said students at Inspire are not taught by testing “as you might see in a traditional classroom.” Inspire Charter gets a huge number of students coming in from other schools who may already be below grade level, Demofonte added.
“So, it’s really hard when you have this type of growth to assess what actually happens with those types of tests.”
Schiavone says all charter schools are in the same situation when it comes to students moving to their schools.
Critics have also pointed to the salary of Inspire Charter’s CEO and founder as evidence of misspending taxpayer money.
Tax records reviewed by NBC 7 show Doctor Nick Nichols was paid more than $515,000 in 2016.
Inspire’s Board of Directors President Dr. Jayne Gray said his salary amount was high in order to reimburse Nichols for the previous underpayment he received when the school was originally getting off the ground.
Nichols’ annual salary is now $380,000.
To read Dr. Jayne Gray’s full statement to NBC 7, click here.
As charter school educators put their best foot forward, considering the pending legislation, they are also calling on those who are responsible for overseeing charter schools to pay closer attention to which schools are authorized.
“We believe this is the number one issue that requires reform in the public charter school movement in California right now,” Rice said.