Originally Published: January 4, 2018 6 a.m.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on charter schools as a form of educational choice. Today’s story focuses on the impact as viewed by area district school leaders.
School choice has long been debated not only in Arizona, but nationwide.
State laws that created charter schools boasting of enhanced student academic performance has rubbed traditional schools the wrong way from the start.
And Arizona is no exception.
“Charter schools definitely changed the political landscape; no doubt about it,” said Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter, president of the state Board of Education. “Arizona was a leader in the charter school movement; we were one of the first to put the till in the water.”
In the past few months, national and state agencies have released reports highlighting some of the discrepancies between district and charter schools. The reports state it is time state lawmakers consider reforms that assure better protection of taxpayer dollars and that all students are getting a fair shake when it comes to educational opportunities.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona this month released a report titled, “Schools Choosing Students” that states of 471 charter schools examined, 56 percent have discriminatory enrollment policies, with some catering to the highest-achievers and others limiting enrollment of those with learning disabilities.
State law is clear that no public school, charter or district, can discriminate against student based on race, socio-economics, nationality or other special needs, including physical, mental or intellectual disabilities.
Charters, though, are not required to provide student transportation, analysts noted. In and of itself, lack of access to transportation can create socio-economic discrimination because it eliminates the choice charters are purported to offer families regardless where they reside, analysts suggest.
Charters and district schools also have different governance. Charter schools have boards composed of parents, faculty, and often administrators. Districts are governed by elected leaders responsible for direct oversight of the superintendent.
District leaders are quick to note charter schools are not the sole ingredient in school choice, nor are charters academically superior to their programs. In truth, these leaders argue their schools are the top choice for most families, offering the most varied programming for the most diverse number of students, be it scholastics, vocational programs, the arts or sports.
“We’re not afraid to compete because we know we have a great product. But how productive is it to have competition with tax dollars that are becoming so thin,” said Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard.
Howard said he endorses the philosophy of the nation’s forefathers who envisioned pooling public dollars so that every child could be afforded the opportunity of an education. He is proud the district takes all comers, and promotes a varied civic and academic environment where children regardless of abilities and backgrounds are encouraged to work together to seek their individual passions.
“If that doesn’t prepare them for the world, I don’t know what does,” Howard said.
Beyond fixing the limited funding streams hurting district and charter schools, Howard said he would like to see state lawmakers change the oversight rules so districts and charters are treated the same. The current system has created unnecessary divisiveness, he said.
“I’ll take my top 50 kids and put them up against any other schools’ top 50 kids any day,” Howard said. “…I don’t think you can find a charter that offers something we don’t. Show me their specialty, and I’ll show you what we do, and do better.
“We just have to do a better job telling people what we do have.”
Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent John Scholl said he endorses school choice. But it must be done with fair policies, be that finances or enrollment practices.
In Scholl’s view, the existence of other educational options has led his district staff to “reflect and evaluate ourselves to be sure we do everything we can to educate our kids to the best of our ability.”
Arizona has long prided itself on being a state that promotes school choice. But that rings false when one considers the continual defunding of the state’s top school choice: district schools, said Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Dan Streeter.
Using school choice as a means to shuffle dwindling dollars between charters and district schools is nothing but a “shell game” financial philosophy that hurts all children, Streeter said.
Any educational scenario that creates “winners and losers” among students is unacceptable, Streeter said. If this state wants to pride itself on school choice, it needs to be certain that all schools are financed equally, and adhere to rules that assure students are at the forefront of all decisions, he said.
In the long-term, this state needs to embrace adequate funding and academic accountability “for all of our kids,” Streeter said.