Free technology! Free state money! More enrollments! Public money for religious schools that state law forbids!

An offer too good to pass up.

A district with declining enrollment opened an online charter school (aka “cash cow”) offered free computers to students in a Catholic school a hundred miles away.

The arrangement allows students in Catholic schools to be enrolled in two schools at the same time. The academic record of online charter schools is dismal.

“That Lennox had created a virtual school was not so remarkable. Online public schools operate across California in almost every form imaginable. Some cater to home-schoolers; others focus on students who have fallen far behind. Many are charter schools that are supposed to be held accountable by the school boards that authorize them, but a handful are run by public school districts that answer mainly to themselves.

“The Lennox Virtual Academy operated in what legal experts have called a murky regulatory environment. Even so, it stood out both for enrolling students already attending school elsewhere and for its willingness, in partnering with Catholic schools, to test the limits of California’s particularly strict interpretation of the separation of church and state.

“The description of the pilot program alarmed Rivera, who is an attorney and could tell she was not being asked to sign an ordinary permission slip.

“It had red flags all over it,” she said of the paperwork, particularly one section that stated, “…all of our students in 5th-8th grade will need to be co-enrolled at both schools.”

“She grew even more concerned after she asked a St. Francis administrator how it could possibly be legal for a Catholic school to get such expensive technology for free from a public school district, and was told the school was taking advantage of a legal “loophole.” St. Francis officials declined to comment for this story, but the Diocese of Fresno and the Lennox School District defended the arrangement as legal.

“Rivera refused to sign the forms.

“There can’t be a loophole in the law that other private schools aren’t using,” she said. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”