Chapman involvement in proposed charter school causes local conflict

charter school

Tensions between Chapman and Orange residents escalate as Chapman supports proposed charter school. Illustration by Kali Hoffman

Chapman’s involvement in a proposed charter school in Orange has upset some community members. The school could enroll up to 772 students at one of three potential locations, all within less than four miles of Chapman, according to the school’s charter petition.

The K-8 charter school, called Tomorrow’s Leadership Collaborative, aims to educate students with and without disabilities together, instead of dividing them into separate classrooms or schools.

“Once we get approved, you just watch – everyone’s going to want to play with us. It’s so the way all schools should be,” said Don Cardinal, an Attallah College of Educational Studies professor in the Thompson Policy Institute, which is a disability research center.

But some are concerned about negative effects to the Orange Unified School District (OUSD). If the project is approved and students attend the charter school instead of other local schools, the district could lose funding that it receives every day for children’s attendance, said Tim Surridge, who serves on the district’s Board of Education. This could force the district to cut art and music programs in Orange, Villa Park and Anaheim Hills, Surridge said.

Once we get approved, you just watch – everyone’s going to want to play with us.”

Adam Duberstein, founder of community group Respect Orange, said the project is a “detriment” to the Orange community.
“It’s pretty disheartening to find out what programs may have to be cut to pay for something like this,” Duberstein said. “The community was never brought in to give their opinions. The applicants, including Chapman, did not communicate with the surrounding community at all.”

Chapman’s role in the project is to provide research, education and training through the Attallah College, Cardinal said, but he emphasized that the charter school would continue with or without Chapman’s support.

The charter’s proposed six-member board of directors includes a Chapman professor and a California State University, Northridge professor who received her Ph.D. from Chapman, according to the charter’s petition. In October, the dean of Chapman’s Attallah College of Educational Studies wrote a letter to the district in support of the charter that was included in the petition.

After the district denied the school’s proposal in January, the charter appealed the decision to the Orange County Department of Education, which will either deny or approve the school on the county level March 14.

“I just wanted to hug Respect Orange,” Cardinal said. “Everything’s not so negative. This is a good thing.”

The charter school, which Cardinal described as a “positive cutting-edge model,” would put Orange County on the map, he said. The school’s structure means that if parents have one child with a disability and one child without a disability, they won’t have to send them to different schools. About 15 percent of students attending the school would have a disability, Cardinal said.

Are you really going to partner with something that would so readily harm other students?”

Cardinal dismissed the concern that the school would bring more traffic to the community, as students would simply attend the charter school or another school in Orange, he said.

“I can’t think of anything about this that an Orange resident would be upset about,” he said. “If something like this happened in Orange County and Chapman wasn’t part of it, I would be embarrassed.”

Jessica Tunney, the would-be executive director of the school, said that families don’t want their children separated to learn.

“I know that it’s important to families of kids with disabilities in particular, to make sure that their child is not treated as less than, as ‘othered,’ as removed,” she said. “What I end up focusing on is that I know this school has a need, and I know the model is effective and beautiful because I have taught it.”

But Surridge said that the approval of the charter school could harm the district’s existing programs. This is because, under state law, California schools are partially funded by average daily attendance, or ADA. For every day that a child attends school, the district receives about $47 per child, said Kathleen Franks, OUSD’s attendance accounting supervisor.

So if 772 children were pulled out of the district to attend the charter school in Orange, the district would lose ADA funding from those children, Surridge said.

“OUSD is far bigger than just Orange, and so the implication of this … I’m going, ‘Are you really going to partner with something that would so readily harm other students?’” Surridge said. “That’s where I’m critical.”

But Cardinal disagrees, saying that threats of program cuts are made to elicit sympathy.

Orange Unified’s enrollment is declining regardless of the charter school, he said. Enrollment has dropped by about 2,300 from 2011-12 to 2017-18, according to a fact sheet Surridge provided to The Panther. As a result, a projected enrollment graph for the next four years shows that the district could stand to lose $56 million from an overall loss of attendance.

charter school

Graphic by Emma Stessman

“The way a school district deals with declining enrollment is their business,” Cardinal said. “If a person leaves one school and goes to another school, they lose that money. But (then), they have fewer kids to educate. If they said they were going to lose other programs, I don’t know what to say. That has nothing to do with the charter school.”

One reason the district denied the charter school was because its budgeting didn’t match its proposed programs, Surridge said. However, both Cardinal and Tunney said that the charter school’s structure is based on the CHIME Institute, where Tunney said she was a teacher, and WISH Charter Elementary, two successful inclusive charter schools in Los Angeles.

Another issue with the charter is the diversity of its staff, Surridge said, as the area that the charter school would serve, spanning from Anaheim Hills to Villa Park to Orange, is about 40 percent Hispanic on average, according to the most recent U.S. Census.

“Everybody involved (in the proposed school) is white, basically,” Surridge said. “This is a demographic that’s Hispanic. And if you have no background working with that student population … But the hard thing to beat is the Chapman brand.”

But Cardinal said it’s unfair to criticize the charter’s staff choices when it hasn’t yet begun the hiring process.

“If Orange Unified made that comment to me, I’d say, ‘What’s up with the demographics of your teachers and your students? Are you fully diverse?’” Cardinal said. “And they’re not. It’s a problem in the whole state of California.”

The Orange County Department of Education will vote to approve or deny the charter school at the county level in Costa Mesa March 14.

Jamie Altman contributed to this report.