Ahead of the class: MBX Flex allows students to take summer school on their own time. But does it give an unfair edge to those that can afford it?
by Ryan McDonald
In January, teachers in the Mira Costa High School Department of Social Sciences voted to change what it meant to be an “A” student. Although teaching practices would not change, starting with the winter semester of this school year, a cumulative average as low as a 78 would earn an A.
The move, department faculty said, was a response to the growing number of Mira Costa students taking social science classes during the summer in a district-affiliated program and, increasingly, those offered by for-profit schools. Widespread dodging of school-year history and other social studies classes threatened the “citizenship and critical thinking” that these courses instill, according to a statement from the social sciences faculty.
The argument rested on the assumption that courses taken over the summer were perceived to be easier than those offered during the school year. Changing the grading scale, social studies teachers wrote, would bring students back to campus courses in history and government and economics by lessening “the grade penalty associated with Manhattan Beach public education.”
MBX, the nonprofit organization that runs summer school at Mira Costa, vigorously disputed the assertion that its classes are easier. But there was a second motivation for the new grading scale, laid out in the the teachers’ statement, which drew far less attention. Reducing the number of students who took social studies courses in summer school would help students “without the financial means” to take summer courses. “These students are increasingly harmed by the disadvantages posed by an inflated grade distribution on Mira Costa transcripts, which are tacitly approved by MBUSD,” teachers said.
Around the time the teachers announced the switch, MBX released some news of its own. Along with its traditional summer school offerings, it would offer MBX Flex, which offered customized schedules and a maximum student-to-teacher ratio of three-to-one. A two-semester, one-on-one course, the most expensive MBX Flex option, costs $4,500.
In an interview last month, Adam Geczi, an economics teacher at Mira Costa and co-chair of the social sciences department, said the Flex offerings underscored the argument that differing summer school programs were creating “two separate tracks for students.”
“The paying customer gets the enriched track, while the non-paying customer gets the standard track,” Geczi said.
Officials from MBUSD and MBX defend the Flex program. Private schools like Halstrom Academy and Fusion Education Group offering are already targeting the South Bay because of its affluence, said Mira Costa Principal Dr. Ben Dale. MBX Flex, he said, was merely responding to student needs.
“Those programs are going to exist out there whether we like it or not. Students here have the means to avail themselves,” Dale said.
District families responded to the new program by eagerly signing up for slots.
“Modern world history went a little crazy,” said Jennifer Williams, executive director of MBX, of the sign-up process so far. “But it hasn’t been just history. We had people coming to us and saying, ‘My kid really wants to take chemistry, but he’s got this trip planned. And we’d rather come to you than go somewhere else.’ This gives us the opportunity to offer so much more, and meet so many more needs, directly. Does it cost money? Sure. But if they aren’t coming to us, they’re going to pay for it somewhere else. And I’d rather they come to us, because I know we’re offering a good product.”
The Flex “product” is new, but just how new is difficult to determine, in part because district officials take pains to emphasize that MBX is a legally separate entity, and also because summer school offerings vary so wildly among districts across the Golden State. Based on interviews with state education officials and a review of summer school programs listed on high school websites, it appears to be the first district-affiliated program in the state to offer fee-based, independent study-style summer school,
But though it stands out, MBX Flex also represents a culmination of trends that have been reshaping public education for years. John Rodgers, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said that California has witnessed a “dramatic increase in the gap between what most affluent parents are investing in their children’s education, and what low income parents are spending.”
“That gap has grown even though low-income families have put more money into their children’s education, and have invested a higher percentage of their earnings,” Rodgers said. “That’s not a critique of parents trying to do well by their kids. But when the public sector shrinks or is not fully responsive to the needs of students, you’re going to have the marketplace filling those gaps.”
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote of education, “No other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well-being.” His statement came in dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval in 1973 of Texas linking education dollars to local property taxes, even when the result was grossly unequal funding among school districts. Education, the court said in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a case that remains law, is not a “fundamental right.”
That judgment is a reflection of, and has since become a cause of, the tenuous place of “equity” in American education. On the one hand, the right to schooling is older than the nation itself. Compulsory education laws first appeared in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, some 25 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (In 1918, Mississippi became the last state to pass such a law). But as Marshall — the lead attorney for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education — knew better than most, it has not always been evenly available.
The California Constitution of 1878-79 guaranteed free, universal education, a promise that has generated as much litigation as it has hope. In Serrano v. Priest, the parent of a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District sued over funding disparities similar to the ones in the Rodriguez case. But in parent in Serrano prevailed, because the California Supreme Court ruled the state constitution offers more expansive guarantees of equal education. In 1984, in Hartzell v. Connell, the state supreme court severely limited the ability of schools to assess fees on students. A school board’s decision on whether a program was offered for credit, the opinion held, could not alone determine whether the district could charge a fee for a course or activity, nor could the fact that it was not required for graduation. “Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, a student’s participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family’s decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster,” the court wrote.
The ruling, however, didn’t stop districts from imposing fees. So, in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging serial failures to protect students from costs imposed by districts. The lawsuit cited disturbing instances of students being prevented from participating in course work, or humiliated by school officials for their non-payment. In one example, a high school Spanish teacher used the classroom whiteboard to display the names of students who could not pay the price of a workbook; in another, a male student whose family could not afford fees had to muddle through chemistry without a textbook. More than 30 California school districts were implicated.
When it became clear that the ACLU was likely to prevail in the lawsuit, the state passed AB 1575, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in Oct. 2012. Although the bill professed to merely restate existing law about free schooling, it upended the world of education administration in California.
Pat Escalante, now superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District, was principal at Hermosa Valley School at the time. She said that following the lawsuit and the passage of AB 1575, Hermosa schools took a top-to-bottom look at district programming. Everywhere that the word “fee” appeared, such as on field trip permission slips, it was changed to “donation.” She said the district and Hermosa’s parent-teacher organization have a confidential program in place to provide scholarships for outside-of-school activities that take place during the school day, such as the popular seventh grade, Tall Ship trip to Catalina.
“The wording was changed after that for everything. If a kid can’t pay, we pay. That’s just our bottom line,” Escalante said.
MBUSD once ran its own summer school program. Courses were free just like they were during the school year, and the state chipped in with a generous Average Daily Attendance, or ADA, contribution. (A 1963 state Assembly report concluded that “districts have been receiving in effect a higher rate of state support for summer school ADA than for regular school terms.”)
This eventually came to an end, in part due to the passage of Proposition 13. For a time, MBUSD summer programs were run by the Beach Cities Health District. When the health district withdrew its support, summer courses became the responsibility of an entity called the Manhattan Beach Athletic Foundation, which collected fees for summer athletic programs for Mira Costa sports, as well as traditional classes like algebra and health.
Following the 2010 ACLU lawsuit, the district consolidated the funds for athletic programs, summer school, and the booster clubs for extracurricular activities, under a new 501(c)(3) “umbrella organization” called MBX. (“We changed the name because we were doing a lot more than just sports.” Williams said.) MBX designed policies that allow students to participate without obligating them to pay.
“That [ACLU lawsuit] hit Manhattan Beach very hard. The district rightly said, We need to clean up that situation. We need to make sure that our booster clubs, when they are asking for money — which they have to do or the programs wouldn’t be there — are doing it in such a way that no one feels that they must pay in order to play a sport. You cannot have it tied in any way shape or form to that kid’s ability to pay. The coach can’t even know who has donated and who hasn’t,” Williams said.
School and MBX officials emphasized that MBX is a separate entity from the district. But Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California’s Director of Education Equity, questioned whether that is enough to shield the summer school program from AB 1575. The question hinges on whether the program is an “integral, fundamental part” of the learning experience, Torres-Guillén said. Private entities that hold classes in district facilities, such as a test preparation company, are not covered by the law. But when “the school creates a program, that’s when it applies,” she said. Among the relevant details, Torres-Guillén said, would be how the program is advertised, and whether poor families are less likely to inquire about it than wealthy ones.
Summer school offerings at MBX climbed in popularity until about three years ago, when sign-ups began to level off, a change Williams attributes to more families choosing one-on-one summer courses at Halstrom and Fusion. In the 2016-17 school year, the district imported 450 grades from summer schools other than MBX. The Flex program was Williams’ response.
“My job is to think, ‘If we’re serving the students, we’re not serving them very well if they’re not coming to us,’” Williams said.
Ultimately, MBX decides what courses to offer, she said. But for the Flex program, she said, she approached MBUSD Superintendent Dr. Mike Matthews and Principal Dale with the plan. She did so because of the way MBX courses receive credit on transcripts sent to college. Its courses receive accreditation for the University of California “a-g” requirements through “principal certification.” The process involves the principal verifying that a course “is comparable to other college preparatory courses at the high school,” according to a spokesperson with the UC Office of the President.
“We can’t just go offer something without the district saying, ‘Yeah, we agree, that would be fine,’” Williams said.
Matthews and Dale said they discussed MBX Flex with Williams before the program was announced, but characterized the discussion differently.
“She didn’t have to get our permission. It just sounded like a good opportunity for kids who can’t come to summer school during the day,” Dale said.
“We certainly don’t have any veto power over what MBX does or does not do,” Matthews said.
Torres-Guillén said she could not offer a legal opinion on whether MBX or the Flex program ran afoul of AB 1575. But she said that employing third parties to avoid the prohibition on charging for courses was “concerning.”
“It does seem like a workaround to the constitutional guarantee of not charging for education. It seems like it really violates the spirit of the law,” Torres-Guillén said.
Following the agreement between the legislature and the ACLU that produced AB 1575, Gwen Gross — who served as MBUSD superintendent until 2006, and was at the time the superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District — wrote a letter to parents headlined “State legal settlement will make districts more reliant on donations.”
“An example that comes immediately to mind is summer school. While some districts have opted to eliminate their high school summer programs entirely, we will do our very best to preserve this opportunity by asking for donations from participating families… A contribution will not be required to enroll, and families that agree to donate may do so at any amount they choose. But should donation levels be insufficient, some courses will unfortunately not be offered.”
A 2011 national study by the RAND Corporation identified lack of funding as “the greatest challenge for school districts that wish to offer summer programming.” In California, school districts are, for the most part, not required to provide summer school — one exception is the obligation of certain districts to provide summer programs for the children of migrant farm workers — but when they do, they typically do not receive as much “average daily attendance” (ADA) funding as they do during the school year. With AB 1575, funding summer school became even more difficult .
Nonetheless, many districts continue to offer district-run programs at no cost. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, summer school for high school students is limited to credit recovery, but is free. LAUSD is able to do so in part because of federal Title I funds, which are not available to wealthier districts like MBUSD. These arrangements are not, however, confined to poor, urban districts. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where Matthews served before taking the reins at MBUSD, offers mostly remediation classes, but also some advancement courses. All are free, said Gail Pinsky, community and public relations officer for the Santa Monica-Malibu district.
But in the years following AB 1575, arrangements in which an outside group, often the local education foundation, charges a fee for classroom summer school courses have become common.
MBX’s traditional summer class prices are competitive. A two-semester course, such as chemistry, costs $550, the same price as a similar course in Redondo, where courses are offered through the Redondo Beach Education Foundation. In El Segundo, the education foundation offers two-semester courses for $600. In Palos Verdes, a full-year course is $640, or $700 if there is a lab component. Summer courses from the Beverly Hills Education Foundation run between $875 and $950.
Williams noted that MBX offers scholarships for traditional summer school courses to students in the state’s free-and-reduced-meal program.
“We’ve always had [a scholarship program], but we’ve made it even clearer that students on free-and-reduced lunch can take academic classes, remedial or not, for free,” Williams said. “The district lets us know when there are kids like that. We’re not privy to that information, so a counselor will tell us, ‘This kids wants to take this class.’ We ask no questions and sign them up.”
MBX Flex, however, is far more expensive than offerings at other summer school programs. And, at least for this year, scholarships are not available for Flex courses.
“We don’t have a good handle on how to make this profitable. It’s not that we care about the profit; we care that we don’t lose money. And until we have a better handle on that, we can’t offer it on a scholarship basis. Would I love to? Sure,” she said.
Mark Rosenbaum was one of the lead attorneys for the ACLU in the suit that led to AB 1575. Today, he serves as director of the economic injustice initiative at Public Counsel. He said that while the MBX Flex program sounded “egregious,” all fee-based summer school programs flirt with illegality. “It’s just nobody bothers to challenge it.” Torres-Guillén, of the ACLU, said that the organization did not have any active cases or investigations dealing with summer school fees.
The lack of a lawsuit challenging summer school fees may be as much a reflection of local politics as legal merit. Fee arrangements for summer school are more common in more affluent school districts, and reflect those districts’ lower funding level under the Local Control Funding Formula, a school finance overhaul Brown pushed through the year after AB 1575. Partially as a result, MBUSD is now among the lowest-funded districts in the state, and private funding sources pay for an increasingly large share of operations.
In the eyes of education equity advocates, however, a funding crunch is no excuse.
“There are budget problems in the state and it’s having problems ensuring schools get the money they need. But you can’t pass that cost along to school children and their families. In tough budget times, it’s tough budget times for families as well,” said David Sapp, one of Rosenbaum’s co-counsel on the Doe case, told KPCC in 2011.
In 2015, Sapp left the ACLU after Brown named him deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel to the California State Board of Education. Sapp declined to comment for this story through a state board spokesperson.
Poor students are rare in the MBUSD. According to data from the California Department of Education, in the 2016-17 school year, 200 students out of a district population of 6,775 were in the state’s free-and-reduced-price meal program, about three percent. (Data for this school year were not yet available.) By comparison, about 81 percent of students in the LAUSD qualify for the program. Of the 200 MBUSD students in the state program, 113 attended Mira Costa. Two students, both at Manhattan Beach Middle School when the education department’s survey was done, were homeless.
Critics say MBX Flex prices are are unaffordable even for the also-shrinking population of middle-class students attending Mira Costa.
“Even if they don’t fall into those categories [of unduplicated students], there are some students who just can’t afford it. Outside of Manhattan Beach, there might be more of an uproar. But it’s real. The inequity is real,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay Teachers United, the local affiliate of the California Teachers Association, which represents Mira Costa educators.
One afternoon last month, Nicholas, a junior at Mira Costa, sat on a bench on the corner of Peck Avenue and Artesia Boulevard. He was waiting for a Metro bus to carry him to his father’s shop on Hawthorne Boulevard, where he would work a few hours before heading home.
He did not seem overly excited about the prospect. He had a donut in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, trying to muster a bit of energy for work. His phone rested on his lap, and a set of earbuds snaked around his neck. He sunk into the bench, and looked as though he might have slid right off were it not for the backpack strapped around his shoulders.
“Isn’t summer school basically a way to pay for A’s anyway? Normal summer school is what, a few hundred dollars? But thousands? I can’t afford that,” Nicholas said. He said $4,500, the price of a one-on-one, two-semester course at MBX Flex, was more than two months’ rent where he and his family lived.
Nicholas transferred to Mira Costa in the fall from what he described as a school in a poor part of Arizona. Coming to the Manhattan Beach Unified School District has been an adjustment. He described students at Costa as more complacent because of their comparative privilege. He said he found the idea of MBX Flex “kinda dumb,” but that there was little discussion of MBX Flex among students he knew on campus.
“It’s Manhattan Beach. If it were in Lawndale or Inglewood, they might be making a bigger deal of it,” Rodriguez said.
The rapid rate of sign-ups for MBX Flex, however, indicates that word has gotten out among district parents, some of whom describe it as a lifesaver.
Mariel Waller has a daughter at Mira Costa going into her junior year. She plays club volleyball and, along with two of her teammates, has signed up for an MBX Flex course in U.S. history. The club attends a large tournament every summer that conflicts with the dates of traditional summer school programs. And, given the compressed time table for summer school courses, students can typically miss only one or two days of class.
Waller’s daughter took health through MBX last summer. The timing of the tournament meant that she had to miss only one day of class, so she was able to pass. But knowing that she would fail if she missed another day was “super stressful.”
“We just thought, ‘Well, that’s it for summer school.’ Then I saw this notice about Flex. So I called two friends, who have daughters on the same team. They were very excited, so the three of us signed up. It was the only way we could do it. And all three [of the kids] want to do it. It’s not that we make them: they want to do it,” Waller said.
Waller said she had considered Halstrom and Fusion, but was happy she could go with MBX. Since its inception, MBX has donated more than $4 million to the district. Notably, MBX’s status as a distinct legal entity was lost on some parents who signed up for the Flex program in part because they preferred to keep their money “in the district.”
“First of all, [Halstrom and Fusion] are way more expensive. And second, I was happy that I could give the money to our own school district instead of a private school,” she said.
Club sports and extracurricular commitments are a common reason for choosing MBX Flex, Williams said. And like Waller, many come to the program after previously using the traditional summer classroom option. But MBX Flex also attracts those with more specialized needs.
One Mira Costa parent, who signed her son up for one-on-one chemistry this summer, said health issues forced him to drop two classes this year. Ongoing medical problems would have made the summer classroom time — as much as five-and-a-half hours per session — difficult.
“He physically wouldn’t be able to sit that long. But he’s a really good, self-motivated, A student. We were looking at all the alternatives, and we didn’t know what to do,” said the parent, who requested anonymity to discuss her son’s medical issues.
Like Waller, she was hesitant to pick a program “outside the district” like Fusion or Halstrom.
“When they came up with the Flex thing that just saved me. It keeps him on schedule, it worked with his physical limitations, and everything was just connected. It would all flow through to the district, and I didn’t have to worry about transcripts. I also felt better knowing MBX gives money back to district. I would rather invest in our own community,” the parent said.
Fusion South Bay sits on the second floor of a commercial building at the corner of 16th Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, in a space once occupied by an AMC Theater. It opened in 2011 with one student. This was less of a problem than it might seem, because all courses at Fusion are taught one-on-one. It has since grown into a program with 65 full-time, year-round students, and 40 part-time and tutoring students.
The facility feels more like a Silicon Beach startup than a one-room school. Communal study areas, a teachers’ lounge and a performance space occupy the center. On the rim, in a horseshoe layout, are the classrooms. They are equipped with two tables, two desks, and other equipment, depending on what is taught. (The school has lab rooms that can handle most experiments, excluding, per zoning, “those ending in fire”). On a recent visit, the ambient noise level was higher than a library, lower than a cafe. Electric guitars competed for wall space with a gallery of semi-embarrassing photos of teachers in their youth.
A surfboard hangs on the wall at the entrance, as it does in every Fusion academy. The company began in Solana Beach, Calif. when Michelle Rose Gilman, a former teacher in a school for kids with special needs, began teaching kids one-on-one out of her garage. She took some of them surfing, and would leave the boards to dry against the wall.
A collection of investors called the American Education Group from Grand Rapids, Mich. acquired the company in 2007. There are now dozens throughout the country. This year, locations are expected to open in Miami and Seattle.
Two-semester summer courses at Fusion are $6,400, while a full-time courseload runs between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. Cory Zacker, director of admissions and outreach for Fusion South Bay, said the school has always been open year-round, but that participation in summer courses by students who attend local high schools “took off pretty quickly.”
“A lot of it is word of mouth. They have a great experience here. Kids are coming from a school where there’s 20 to 30 kids in a room, and all of a sudden there’s a curriculum tailored to them,” Zacker said.
Rather than feel threatened by MBX Flex, she said she was encouraged.
“I was happy when I heard Mira Costa was offering one-on-one over the summer. I think that shows that we are affecting change in this community. They’re saying, ‘Hey, our kids are going over there because they’re having this great experience,’” Zacker said.
It is impossible to miss the advantages that Fusion’s model provides. Some teachers sat across from their students, while others sat next to them. The facility includes its own ProTools-equipped recording studio, and one-on-one instruction for students in recording arts; on a recent Monday, a student worked with a teacher on guitar, while the “jam room” sat empty. And no one appeared to be in a hurry. Parents can plan out class time with teachers around vacations, athletic obligations or, as is sometimes the case in Southern California, TV or movie shoots.
But the growing popularity of programs like Fusion and Halstrom has impacted classrooms at Mira Costa. Even before the social science department voted to change the grading scale, administrators had been feeling pressure to stem the tide of imported credits by declining to accept courses from outside providers. Dale, the Mira Costa principal, said that in ongoing discussions with the school board, this option has been considered and rejected, in part because it did not address the underlying reason many students took those courses: to make room in their schedules for other courses and electives.
“It would be easy to just say, We’re not taking any outside courses. But then we’d be guilty of not providing our students an adequate alternative. We’d be saying, ‘Let’s just give them what they need and forget what they want,’” Dale said. “Whenever you see rules put in place in a school, think to yourself, Is that making things easier for kids? Or is it making things easier for adults? It would be easier on us. But if we do that, can kids get everything they need?”
Dale said the definition of what students “need” has expanded amid increasing pressure to get into college. MBUSD Board Member Ellen Rosenberg said that, for the past two years, a school board committee devoted to social and emotional wellness has explored ways the district could limit the pressure students face to pile on courses and activities. Some of this has been devoted to exploring alternative schedules, she said, but the long-term solution is much more difficult.
“Coming up with another schedule to allow kids to do even more is not the fix. That’s changing the day so you can stuff 12 pounds of stuff in a 10-pound bag. The bigger fix is the cultural fix: showing people that you don’t have to do everything,” Rosenberg said.
Jeannie Oakes, presidential emeritus professor in educational equity at UCLA and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, agreed that the relentless focus on getting into college was having negative impacts. But Oakes, who formerly served as director of educational opportunity and scholarship at the Ford Foundation, said that the embrace of expensive, one-on-one courses was emblematic of the way that education, instead of being an “equalizing force” in society, could become something that reinforces existing disparities.
“For advantaged families, school is about competition for highly regarded post-secondary schools. And even when reforms are introduced providing more access, they’re often used and distorted by wealthy families to capture more advantage. It sounds so pernicious, but in a way we have structured a system that is so much about scarcity that it’s become a zero-sum game: if I concede something to your child, it might take away from my own child. It’s human behavior, parents wanting to ensure that their kids have the best opportunities, the best chances after high school,” Oakes said. ER