Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Last week was poised to be National School Choice Week in Humboldt County but a proposed Board of Supervisors proclamation on it failed after it was flagged for discussion.
Supervisor Mike Wilson pulled the proclamation from the Jan. 22 board meeting agenda, citing the use of tax funding for private schools as a problematic aspect.
The proclamation was sponsored by Board Chair Rex Bohn, who wrote in a staff report that “the Board (of Supervisors) would like to bring awareness of the public and nonpublic K-12 educational options to children in our community” and “educational variety helps prepare all students to be successful adults and encourages diversity in our community.”
Similar language is encouraged by a National School Choice Week organizing group whose support of public funding for private school enrollment prevented Wilson from backing the proclamation.
He highlighted the definition of private schools from the group’s website. It describes private schools as ones whose enrollments can be funded through taxes, tax credits and deductions, and state and local education funding.
“Which basically is public subsidy of private education and they include religious education in their definitions,” Wilson said. “That’s concerning to me – it’s not something that I support.”
Wilson related that his two children had been enrolled in a charter school before attending public school but “supporting this organization and this effort is a bit too much for me.”
Private charter schools are seen as being excluded from special education and other challenging enrollment obligations, leaving them entirely to public schools. And Wilson added that traffic and other neighborhood impacts of charter schools and open enrollment – although he was “part of that problem” in the past – present “a lesson in and of itself, on how we hold our communities together.”
During a public comment session, Arcata resident and retired teacher John Webb said the promotion of School Choice Week is “not what it appears to be on the surface.”
He told supervisors that the effort’s funders include “right wing and anti-union organizations” and “charter schools are a way for private schools to siphon off taxpayer funds and spend it in an unaccountable manner.”
Blue Lake resident Katheryn Donahue warned supervisors that specific polices are being pushed under the “broad label” of School Choice.
“Some of these policies include funding to schools that are unaccountable to state standards including religious academies and cyber-schools and they do this through vouchers and tuition tax credits,” she said. “These policies divert and deny money to fund our public schools.”
Caroline Griffith of the North Coast People’s Alliance read a statement from Eureka City School Board Trustee G. Mario Fernandez which describes National School Choice Week as “an affront to our Humboldt public schools” that “greatly undermines the necessity of and confidence in public education.”
Supervisor Virginia Bass said she “did get some calls” about the proclamation and said school superintendents “have concerns with the voucher system, with the money and with lack of transparency.”
Supervisor Steven Madrone said he enrolled his children in the Equinox private elementary school in Arcata in the 1980s but did it without the aid of public funding.
“I do have great concerns over the erosion of funding for public schools, and I hope that we can continue to support public schools,” he continued. “So I have a hard time with this proclamation simply because I know what it stands for.”
Facing resistance, Bohn explained that the proclamation was “passed on” to him as board chair by former Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, who was board chair at the end of his last term.
Bohn said Humboldt has more than 3,000 children enrolled in private and charter schools and a “big segment” of school choice is home schooling. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved a similar proclamation in 2017, he continued.
“But am I going to die on this sword – no,” said Bohn.
He didn’t, and joined a vote to reject approval of the proclamation.