A matter of choice: Public education now a competitive sport

A Hero Day Celebration at Anasazi Elementary School withing the Scottsdale Unified School District Nov. 7, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Schools)

A Hero Day Celebration at Anasazi Elementary School withing the Scottsdale Unified School District Nov. 7, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Schools)

As Arizona struggles to fund and improve its educational system, some parents throughout the state have turned to charter schools as a stronger alternative to the public school system.

With a strong public school system in Scottsdale and a number of reputable charter schools, parents in the Northeast Valley certainly have a multitude of options to consider.

And, despite differing opinions on which option is best, everyone agrees the key for parents is to do their research and find the best “fit” for their child.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. They’re given more freedom to design and conduct their curriculum and can serve as an alternative for those students who aren’t thriving in their feeder school.

Charter school critics are quick to point to a lack of accountability, transportation and extracurricular activities as some of the reasons some families are now making their way back to the public school.

Eileen Sigmunb

Eileen Sigmund

According to Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, in 2013 there were 3,258 students enrolled in 10 charter schools within Scottsdale. In 2014 that number grew to 4,337 students enrolled in 18 charter schools. In Arizona, there were a total of 190,000 charter school students during the 2014-15 school year.

This year alone, two more charter schools opened in Scottsdale in 2015.

Charter schools are often popular alternatives to failing public schools. But the decision becomes tougher when the local public school system is strong, such as in Scottsdale.

According to the Scottsdale Unified School District website, there are about 25,668 students enrolled at its 31 schools. Nineteen Scottsdale schools have received an A rating for the 2013-14 school year and the district received an A for its fourth year in a row.

“Of the 18 charters, there are 13 that are A-rated,” said Ms. Sigmund in a Sept. 4 phone interview. “We had more schools opening, so we went from 10 charters to 18. It’s a quality choice when you have 13 of the 18 with an A rating.”

The Arizona Charter Schools Association of Arizona stated that 18 of the Top 30 public schools are charter schools, yet charter students are funded, on average, $1,180 less than the average district student “due to Arizona’s antiquated system of school finance.”

Just like traditional public schools, publicly funded charter schools receive state funds based on student attendance. However, they do not receive funds from local tax revenue.

According to the Arizona Department of Education website, “charter schools are funded by the state and receive money based on student attendance. A specific charter school’s funding is as stable as the school’s enrollment. Charter schools may also solicit and receive contributions.”

Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed says district-sponsored charter schools recently had its financial

Bonnie Sneed

Bonnie Sneed

benefits reduced.

“Because charter schools originally were intended to enhance the educational experience of under-served youth, they were encouraged to be innovative and operate under less restrictive government regulation as they formed,” stated Ms. Sneed in a Sept. 17 e-mailed response to questions.

“Many districts in Arizona took this to heart and formed district-sponsored charter schools to spur choice and innovation, but the Arizona Legislature recently discontinued any financial benefit if the charter is district-sponsored.”

Ms. Sneed says recent legislation prohibits districts from forming new district-sponsored charters, and any that are now operating are forced to revert to operate as a district public school.

Is the model working?

In 1994 charter schools were authorized by the Arizona Legislature and the first charters opened in 1995. These schools were established to give parents academic choices for their children and provide a learning environment to improve student achievement, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

“Simply put, a charter is a contract to improve student achievement,” stated Arizona Charter Schools Association Director of Communication Megan Gilbertson said in a Sept. 16 e-mailed response to questions.

“Arizona laws provide public schools more autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for improved student achievement.”

The charter schools in Arizona can be authorized by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona universities and community colleges, stated Ms. Gilbertson. These entities evaluate a charter school’s academic, fiscal and operational compliance. It is these establishments that hold charter schools accountable for students’ academic performance, compliance with state laws and management of public funding.

Ms. Sneed says although charter schools choose or appoint their own board members, which is regulated by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, there is no direct accountability to the local community for their actions and decisions, unlike a district public school.

“Their assets, including their buildings and land, are funded through additional per-student tax dollars and tuition or donations,” said Ms. Sneed. “But they are owned by the charter school organization and can be sold without mandatory public hearings or voter approval.”

Unlike public school property, the profits made from these types of sales are not required to be reinvested back into public purpose.

In addition, charter schools may operate under less governmental oversight and regulation, resulting in looser guidelines for areas such as procurement rules, teacher certification, financial accountability and overall accountability to the public, Ms. Sneed said.

“Charter schools are not required to have certified teachers in the classroom,” she said.

“While this may provide the opportunity to have professionals from an occupation teach children without the burden of obtaining teacher certification, it also allows teachers whose certification has been revoked for unprofessional or immoral behavior to teach children in the charter classroom.”

Ms. Sneed thinks the investment put into charter schools simply has not panned out.

“Now that Arizona has had charters for a number of years, we have seen evidence that, overall, the significant investment in charters has not resulted in demonstrable improvements in academic achievement,” Ms. Sneed said.

That’s the beauty of choice

The draw to taking the non-traditional route of attending a charter school is that a student can choose to enroll in any school they want – they are not limited to a ZIP code.

“I know a lot of families that have their children at several charter schools,” said Ms. Sigmund. “That’s the beauty of choice.”

For parents, finding the right fit for their child is the key to choosing a charter school over a public school.

North Phoenix mother Lesley Deason enrolled her son at a charter school, Benchmark Elementary, for fifth and sixth grade due to the fact the public school he was assigned to didn’t meet her standards.

Lesley Deason

Lesley Deason

“I didn’t realize until he was in the fourth grade that this wasn’t working out and I needed to do something different,” said Ms. Deason in a Sept. 15 phone interview. “When we moved to the north Phoenix area I did research and the charter school was the best option.”

When starting the seventh grade, he enrolled in Explorer Middle school, a public school in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Her son also previously attended a private school.

Researching all of her son’s options was very important in the decision-making process, Ms. Deason said.

“A lot of parents aren’t aware that they can do that,” said Ms. Deason. “If you find another school that fits the parents’ and students’ desires better, there are options for inbound transfers.”

Ms. Deason’s son conducted an inbound transfer to attend his current middle school, Explorer Middle School.

“We are in the boundary for Greenway Middle School, but it has extremely poor testing results,” said Ms. Deason.

Researching school options is important when considering variables such as transportation to and from school. Not all charter schools may be able to provide transportation for the student, according to Ms. Sigmund.

“Certainly not all charters can provide transportation, so sometimes parents have to provide their own transportation,” said Ms. Sigmund.

She says each charter school is able to allocate its given funds however it wishes, and therefore some schools provide transportation while others don’t.

Another factor in the decision-making process: Extracurricular activities.

“It’s different for high school charters. They are younger so they haven’t graduated as many graduating classes,” said Ms. Sigmund. “They may not have what schools who have been around for 50 years have.”

BASIS Scottsdale Director of Academic Programs Tyler Garvey says he was originally drawn to the charter school when first seeking a teaching job because of its self-governing atmosphere.

“One of the biggest advantages that BASIS has as a charter school is that we have autonomy with our curriculum,” said Mr. Garvey in a Sept. 16 e-mailed response to questions. “As a result, we are able to create a school with the highest academic expectations.”

Charter schools create their own mission and model, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association website, serving a wide variety of students, many with needs beyond the “one-size-fits-all” model of traditional public schools.

“The idea of teaching at BASIS was appealing to me because it gave me the opportunity to work with an advanced curriculum in an environment where students can be held to the highest expectations in all subjects,” said Mr. Garvey.

The right fit for your family

South Scottsdale resident Edmond Richard has children attending SUSD elementary, middle and high schools. His family recently switched back to the public school system after several years attending charter schools.

Edmond Richard

Edmond Richard

“My wife and I checked through all charter schools,” said Mr. Richard in a Sept. 15 phone interview. “Many say they are free, but it’s like saying you can buy this Ferrari but the engine, transmission and wheels are extra.”

However, it wasn’t extra cost that returned them to public schools.

“Most charters are education-focused; most often aligned with common core, a lot of testing. There’s more strengthening of the basics,” said Mr. Richard.

“The extracurriculars are optional – if they have any – and unfortunately there is not a sense of community at a charter school. I thought my kids would flourish in a charter school, and they did to some extent while they were there for awhile, but there was something missing for them. They all asked to get moved back to public school.”

According to SUSD Public Information Officer Kristine Harrington, the schools in Scottsdale are a very popular choice among parents and some schools even have waiting lists.

“School choice has changed the competitive landscape in the state of Arizona so that families are able to make a thoughtful choice when it

Kristine Harrington

Kristine Harrington

comes to deciding where to enroll their students,” said Ms. Harrington in a Sept. 15 e-mailed response to questions. “As a result enrollment has been impacted but SUSD is a highly sought after district.”

Ms. Harrington attributes the district’s popularity to its unique programs and the fact that it accepts all students.

“We accept all students and have a wide array of program offerings from early childhood through graduation,” said Ms. Harrington. “We believe in a well-rounded education that not only includes rigorous curriculum but has a focus on the arts and athletics, too.”

Ms. Sneed says enrollment at SUSD has slightly increased this year after experiencing a decrease due to the recession and two years of decreased local funding support.

“We have noticed an increase in students and parents that have witnessed the realities of some charter experiences, and find that while the charter offering seemed enticing at first blush, the best ‘fit’ for their child is what really matters most, and we see many who are choosing to return,” said Ms. Sneed.

“I think more parents are beginning to understand that we have excellent choices right within our own district schools, and that their children might experience more academic and social benefit by choosing elementary and middle school experiences that will ultimately feed seamlessly into their chosen high schools.”

In Ms. Deason’s opinion, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale have good schools.

“I can tell the difference between private, public and charter,” said Ms. Deason. “There is a difference in how the teachers deal with the parents and attitudes, as far as teaching. You just have to find the right fit for your family.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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