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May 28, 2019

6 min

Mark Holley

We Don't Cut Corners: Quality, Ethics and Choice in California Public Education

As a charter school today it feels like we're fighting a battle on two fronts. The first is well-known: traditionalists who are against individual choice in education. Everyone needs a boogeyman, and for public education it's been things like perceived lack of funding, the digital divide, new and changing academic standards, politicians, and now, charter schools. But charter schools aren't why school districts are losing revenues. It's the fact families choose charter schools. That's a distinction that districts should focus energy on.

But the second foe is becoming even more formidable. It’s a sad play on the “this is why we can’t have nice things” meme. And it's (rightfully) giving the first foe much needed but very unnecessary ammunition. What is this foe? It’s unethical charter operators who thrive on money and power. These operators are like destructive tornadoes leaving a destructive path in their wakes, bad actors who put students and families in harm’s way and threaten the democratic and civil right of school choice itself.

I've seen some things. I spent 14 years in a school district, starting as a janitor in a high school and then a warehouse worker, getting through college and working my way into finance and marketing roles at the district office. Upon leaving, I was managing a $125 million budget. During my time there we found that with declining enrollment we were hurting because school district revenues are based on student enrollment. Students leave, revenues decrease. And often, because districts can be a little top-heavy, economies of scale are disrupted. At my district revenues were declining due to a combination of gentrification, and, of course, the entry of charter schools into our market. Where once 98% of students in our boundaries enrolled in district schools, the number had crept down to 84% over the period of just a few years. Basically, our market share had gone from 98% (roughly all eligible students), to 84%; that is, 16% of students in our market were choosing charters or private schools. Choosing.

To grow again we relied on competing with the charter schools for students, rather than trying to litigate or legislate them out of existence. The charters forced us as a district to analyze our product and operations from top to bottom to figure out why families were leaving the district. They made us better. They made us leaner, more innovative, and more results and market-focused. We reinvented ourselves as a district and developed a battle plan to become more marketable and more customized for students and families. It worked.

So yes, I’ve seen how the basic right of choice in education can negatively impact school district revenues. And I’ve also seen the right way to handle it. But I've never seen anything like bad charter school operators and the damage they've done in recent years. And it's putting legislators, many of whom are already surprisingly against charter schools, in the driver's seat of a bus bent on eradicating charter schools altogether, taking down the civil right of school choice in the process.

Most charter schools are focused on the right things and doing their very best for students. They're providing much needed and often life-saving education choices to students and families, including the most vulnerable. Those students without the resources or athletic ability to attend a private school or move to a neighborhood with better schools. The kinds of students who stand to benefit most from choice in education.

We built Method to provide a solution for these and all students who needed a smaller, more flexible, more forward-thinking and personal education option. We didn't build it to compete with school districts or to make money for a corporation. We did it because we saw way too much change resistance and gaping holes in the education system for some students and we wanted to provide them with a better choice. We've done that and we continue to do so. To that end, here are some key facts about Method that I think are timely based on the current climate in public education in California:


Students who stay with Method for an entire year get more than a year’s worth of academic growth. But non-classroom-based (NCB) schools such as Method struggle with retention because of the nature of our schools, which are more flexible and more independently paced than seat-based traditional schools. This is our biggest internal challenge.


Method has no debt, and we don’t rely on factoring, which is a common practice among charter schools. Factoring is the practice of “selling” future expected revenues to a buyer who then provides the school or business with money upfront, eliminating the wait time that makes it difficult for growing schools to fund operations as the costs are incurred well ahead of revenues. Factoring is essentially a way to bridge the time gap between costs and revenues. This gap is one reason why moderate and methodical scaled growth is essential for healthy charter schools. Factoring can be a viable option for some, but it takes money out of the classroom and transfers it to private equity holders and corporations, just like any bank loan. And typically, the terms, interest and fees aren't school-friendly.


We don’t “broker” students or participate with those who do. We don’t merge with or take on other struggling schools in an effort to grow fast and increase revenues. We rely on organic growth, keeping our culture intact and recruiting students who we’re in the best position to serve. There are thousands of students in Southern California that need a school like ours, and we're on a mission to reach them and serve them.


We don’t have a management company that gets a percentage of our funding. All the money earned by Method stays with the school and follows the students. Method is a tuition-free public charter school, and like most charters, we're operated as a non-profit organization. But we aren't owned by nor do we affiliate with a management company, whether for or not-for profit.


Education code is continually changing, mainly as a result of the two factors mentioned above: school district declining revenues and unsavory charter operators. But we make it a non-negotiable requirement to not only comply with the laws but keep a close watch on new laws that could impact our organization. Current bills that will have a lasting negative impact on all charters in California, including Method, include AB 1505, AB 1506, AB 1507, and SB 756. Regardless, we're confident in our ability to pivot and grow if/when these new anti-charter bills are passed into law.


We accept all students who are eligible to attend Method, and our population is diverse in all ways. We don't pick and choose students, regardless of race, income, special education status, learning ability, academic proficiency, or any other reason.

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1 Data from 2018, the most recent year with complete figures; depicts students enrolled, not Average Daily Attendance


Both of our charters were recently reauthorized for five years. Our authorizing districts cited academic growth, a strong financial position, and ethical and compliant practices as Method strengths. Curious about how charter school renewals in California work? Click here.


We work with school districts, not against them. We have close partnerships and working relationships with about 200 schools and districts in Southern California. Talk to a high school counselor in Southern California and they likely know about Method. And they probably like what we do and how we help them.


We developed our own onlinecurriculum, student information system (SIS), and learning management system (LMS) because we couldn’t find any options that worked for our students and allowed us to scale. Our fully integrated system is called SmartFox, and it features more than 140 UC a-g and NCAA approved online courses, a mobile-friendly LMS, and a SIS that connects all data in one place. It’s light, fast, and built for efficiency and efficacy. And perhaps most importantly, it keeps California education funds in California rather than paying out-of-state vendors for online courses that aren’t purpose-built for our students.

What is your school district or charter school doing to provide better options for students? And families, what are you seeing out there that works, and that doesn't work? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Method Schools is a WASC-accredited non-classroom based TK-12 public charter school in Southern California. We work with all like-minded entities, districts, and organizations to ensure students and families get the best possible education options, regardless of race, income, ability, or income. We invent and reinvent and keep California education funds in California.

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