SACRAMENTO — Nearly all California students must get vaccinated after state leaders tightened laws following the 2014 Disneyland measles scare, but at least one loophole remains: new hybrid programs known as charter home schools.
Across the country, state leaders and health advocates have aggressively pushed for new vaccination requirements, especially after the U.S. this year experienced its highest number of measles cases since 1992. California has been at the forefront, enacting a law last month that cracks down on doctors known for approving scores of waivers so unvaccinated children can attend school.
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But there remain ways to get around the law and still receive a taxpayer-funded education, even in California. Though many home-based charters bring students together for regular classroom instruction or activities, the state doesn’t uniformly enforce vaccination laws for such programs.
Monique Labarre, a San Diego attorney turned nursing student with an interest in public health, has two children in home-based charter programs. She said she appreciates the flexibility they offer, but that she’s “unpopular” within the home school movement because of her pro-vaccine stance.
“People are taking public money but they aren’t vaccinating. They believe that [the law] doesn’t apply to public home-school charters,” Labarre said. “Home-schooling doesn’t look like what people think — they are clustering together. But the law is not super clear and needs greater regulation.”
The state’s strict vaccination laws, both written by State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician, apply to all schools except for “home-based private schools and students enrolled in an independent study program.” Charter schools are public. But for the increasing number of programs that blend home instruction and class time, the rules blur.
California doesn’t have a clear interpretation of whether home-based charter schools qualify for the exemption, and some charter programs have relied on that ambiguity to skirt vaccination requirements.
Different home school charters have different rules. Some host classes through third party vendors like the YMCA, which don’t have to operate under the same laws that schools do. Meanwhile, state education and public health officials regurgitate the bill language when pressed for clarification about whether these types of programs are exempt from the law.
Outside the Central Valley city of Visalia, Eleanor Roosevelt Community Learning Center calls itself “a charter school for home school families,” and its website boasts a variety of enrichment classes.
Students “have the opportunity to interact with each other in a fun, warm and caring environment,” according to the school’s website. “Lunchtime at ERCLC is a wonderful example of families and students of all ages interacting, having fun on the playground and enjoying lunch under the shade trees.”
But only 24 percent of the small school’s students have all of their required vaccines. Superintendent Daniel Huecker said his students aren’t expected to follow the state law.
“We are a charter school supporting homeschooling families. Current law does allow homeschooling families [to] not vaccinate their children, and this is why our numbers seem high compared to other charter schools,” Huecker said in an email when asked about the school’s low vaccination rate.
California has at least 269 charter schools that offer non-classroom based instruction, according to preliminary data from the California Department of Education, but the state does not track which, if any, of those schools qualify for the vaccine exemption.
“Only schools would know if a particular student has contact with other students and the extent of that contact,” California Department of Education spokesperson Jonathan Mendick told POLITICO in an email.
Leah Russin, attorney and founder of the parent advocacy group Vaccinate California, said that she’s been pushing state agencies to investigate the issue since the state banned personal and religious belief exemptions in 2015, calling it “a bureaucratic gap.”
According to an email record provided to POLITICO, Russin told California Department of Education officials three years ago that she was “very concerned about reports of some schools, some of which are public charters receiving public money, that have reorganized as ‘home-school co-ops’ in an effort to evade” the vaccination requirements. She called the hybrid schools a “huge risk” that have created “clusters of unvaccinated children.” But she says she never heard back.
“I was trying to find anybody who could claim responsibility for this,” Russin said. “Charter schools are paid for by public tax dollars, so why are they not required to be as protected as every other school in the state?”
For funding purposes, the state defines schools with less than 80 percent of on-site instruction time as non-classroom based, which some schools may rely upon to operate as if the vaccination rules don’t apply to them.
But health experts say the funding definition bears no meaning when it comes to public health. Students that have any classroom instruction face risks for contracting diseases if their group falls below the herd immunity standard of having 95 percent of students up-to-date on their vaccines.
For Pan, it’s common sense: If students get together in the same place, they should have to be vaccinated, regardless if they’re technically classified as a home school.
“If you’re only having a meeting once a year, that’s one thing. But anytime you have people congregating closely together for longer periods of time, that’s what enables the spread of outbreaks,” he said.
The number of unvaccinated children in public and private home-schooling has skyrocketed in California since the 2015 law was enacted. But families are increasingly choosing charter home schools instead of filing a state affidavit to provide private instruction at home because the public programs offer them a stipend for materials and the option of a classroom setting and activities such as field trips.
Bri McKinley, who protested the medical exemption bill in the Capitol last month, said she enrolled her daughter at Forest Charter School in Nevada City because she hoped the flexibility promised to charter schools would shield her from pending vaccine legislation.
The school offers on-site classes and field trips in addition to its homeschooling program. It has an immunization rate of 26 percent.
“I thought maybe we would be safer in a charter school,” McKinley told POLITICO.
When asked about charter home schools, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health said state laws regarding immunization requirements apply to all private and public schools, including charters. But at the same time, the public health agency pointed to exemptions for home schools and independent study as a reason for why charter schools have disproportionately low vaccination rates compared to traditional schools.
“Immunization rates at charter schools and private schools tend to be lower than rates at traditional public schools,” CDPH said in an email. “Because SB 277 [in 2015] created exceptions to requirements for children in home-based private schools or independent study without classroom-based instruction, immunization rates are lower in charter schools which have more students in these exempt categories.”
CDPH declined to answer more specific questions about whether charter home-school programs qualify for the exemptions.
Labarre, the San Diego mother, says each of her children’s schools has its own set of rules regarding vaccines. At Dimensions Collaborative School, students must have immunization records on file in order to attend classes in person. But not at Inspire Charter School, where classes are held through third-party vendors, she said.
In a statement, Steven Lawrence, Interim Executive Director of Inspire, said the schools “have and will continue to follow immunization policies and regulations established under California state law” and will review practices in light of the latest legislation.
Jamie Heston, secretary and treasurer for the Homeschool Association of California, said she’s been advising parents to contact their individual charters to see what their requirements are.
“It depends on the charter,” she said. “There are some where you’re just meeting with a teacher some days but not participating in a classroom environment, and there are some where they may have weekly classes.”
Meanwhile, the California Charter Schools Association is distancing itself from the issue after anti-vaccine opponents protested in Sacramento for weeks this summer, culminating in a woman being arrested for tossing a blood-filled menstrual cup on state senators during the final day of the legislative session. CCSA declined to comment on the charter home-school issue, and its legislative arm took no official stance on the vaccine bills.
A POLITICO analysis of state data shows kindergarten classes at 41 percent of charter schools do not have “herd immunity,” because fewer than 95 percent of these students are up-to-date on their vaccinations. This is compared with 20 percent of similar public non-charter schools for which data is available.
CCSA spokesperson Brittany Parmley said in an email that “like California’s traditional district schools, charter public schools are required to comply with the law.”
A two-year moratorium on non-classroom-based charter schools is part of a new law authored this year by Assembly Education Chairman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), who said the vaccine loophole is just another example of how charter schools operate like “the Wild West.”
“I’ll be blunt, I think a lot of those folks have either disdain for the government or deep religious convictions that lead them to not put their children in public schools,” O’Donnell said. “The irony here is that these schools are publicly funded.”
Taylor Miller Thomas contributed to this report.