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9:48 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Charter advocates hail need of educational choice

Officials assure financial and academic transparency

Three years ago, Franklin Phonetic, it opened a 100-student school in an impoverished area of Phoenix. (Matthew Van Doren/Courier)

Three years ago, Franklin Phonetic, it opened a 100-student school in an impoverished area of Phoenix. (Matthew Van Doren/Courier)

Editor’s note: This is the third of three days of stories looking at charter schools. See previous stories at dCourier.com.

What the GCI report says

Reports out of the Grand Canyon Institute’s September analysis of charter school finances:

In the Tri-City region, there are now 17 operating charter schools, according to the directory maintained through the Yavapai County Education Service Agency.

Several charters were specifically identified as avoiding financial procurement conflicts, or if they do their own purchasing, have shown evidence they have saved taxpayer dollars.

The report listed these schools:

Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Centers in Prescott Valley

Franklin Phonetic Primary School in Prescott Valley

La Tierra Community School in Prescott

Mingus Springs Charter School in Chino Valley

Mountain Oak School in Prescott

The Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Center was specifically noted in the report for its “good” educational and financial practices. The report states that the charter fairly compensates staff, provides state retirement benefits, and does not over-compensate management while at the same time providing a program with strong academic progress and proper financial documentation.

“There is no evidence that this stellar charter selectively picks their students … This large charter (it has six sites) is an exemplar for the charter movement,” the report states.

Some recent state and national criticism of charter schools is deemed by charter leaders and advocates to be an unfair portrayal of an educational choice many families are eager to obtain.

They are adamant their financial and admission practices are well within the law, and records of academic success are not mere boasts.

“In Prescott, families line up and wait several years for our charters. Our families are demanding choice in Prescott. What both of these reports -- the Grand Canyon Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona – fail to mention is that our charters are outperforming the state average in success and family demand,” said Eileen Sigmund, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

Charters are “guardians of the public money” and as such must follow strict annual audit requirements along with other financial documentation to ensure they are complying with state law, Sigmund said. Those audits are reviewed by the state charter board, she said.

As for the ACLU’s accusation of discriminatory enrollment practices, Sigmund said her agency has proof of just the opposite.

Arizona lawmakers need to rethink investment in public education for districts and charters, but the existence of school choice “is something Arizona should celebrate” because no child deserves to be “stuck in a failing school with no options,” Sigmund said.

Franklin Phonetic School in Prescott Valley Founder Cindy Franklin said her 500-student school -- three years ago it opened a 100-student school in an impoverished area of Phoenix – opened in 1996.

All of its years it has maintained a reputation for strong financial reporting and acceptance of all students: 24 percent of its students are eligible for special education services, she said.

As in any profession, there will always be the “few bad apples” but Franklin said their school has always “done the best we can to follow the rules and provide the best education for children.”

Prescott’s La Tierra Community School Director Lenka Studnicka objects to the reports’ efforts to lump all schools together.

In her view, the state has a “beautiful of system of accountability” intended to assure children are always at the forefront of all decisions related to finances and academic progress. In that vein, her school strives to be transparent at all levels such that the school next year will be adding a seventh-grade with the intent of a K-8th grade school by the 2019-2020 school year.

As a 30-year educator, Studnicka said she feels charters have gotten an unfair reputation, but she believes they will prevail as long as she and other leaders are committed to making their schools “really prosperous for our students.”

The charter school system was never intended to mimic district schools, indeed, they were established to be an innovative alternative suited to those who might not thrive in a more traditional setting, said Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter, president of the state Board of Education. Some will argue that has proved a benefit to many children and families; others will argue it has led to a lack of accountability and confidence in what is a public taxpayer investment, he said.

Tri-City Prep High School Founder Mary Ellen Halvorson said she believes the maligning of charter schools is a backlash of the cry for more public funding for all schools.

In an analogy to the health profession, Halvorson said district schools are the general practitioners; charters are the specialists.

“If you need a urologist, you should not go to a cardiologist,” Halvorson said.

The same applies to education, she said.

Charters were created so as to offer innovative programs children might otherwise be unable to afford, she said.

When she started Tri-City Prep in the late 1990s, Halvorson said district high schools did not offer students the chance to take college courses for credit.

“Now everybody does it,” Halvorson said. “Our program is working.”

As for the finger-pointing on finances and enrollment practices, Halvorson said she believes a lot of the tensions exists because of misperceptions rooted in a lack of information. Anyone can disagree with how someone else spends their money, she said.

Halvorson said she is now serving on a committee of the state Auditor’s General Office. In that role, she is working with fellow educators from both districts and charters. She said she is encouraged that this work can be a bridge builder between districts and charters.

In Prescott, charter school leaders and staff want the public to know “they come to work every day to serve students,” Sigmund said.

The sole focus of these public schools is to ensure that their students “can work on their pathway to the American dream,” she concluded.