Arizona Charter Schools Fight for Autonomy

Published October 1, 2007

Five Arizona charter schools must abide by all state standards for now, a Maricopa County Court judge ruled August 7.

The schools, with the help of the Goldwater Institute, filed a lawsuit in June against the Arizona Department of Education to guard against measures to make them teach history classes in the same order as public schools. The judge denied their injunction request on a technicality but will hear the case on its merits in the future.

At press time no trial date had been set. At issue is a struggle over charter school autonomy and state standards.

“We’re really taking a symbolic stand for charter schools,” said Dan Scoggin, chief executive officer of three of the charter schools, managed by Great Hearts Academies. “We feel like the state is coming in and messing with the curriculum, [and] is sort of meddling with 12 years of proven results.”

Differing Definitions

BASIS Tucson, BASIS Scottsdale, Chandler Preparatory Academy, Mesa Preparatory Academy, and Phoenix’s Veritas Preparatory Academy prefer to teach world history before American history, saying it gives students a better foundation for understanding America’s place in the world. The state Department of Education wants them to teach American history first, as the state’s other public schools are required to do.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the judge denied the charter schools’ injunction because they waited too long to file their motion. Horne, a longtime charter school advocate, said in this case he thinks they’re wrong.

“I think we have confusion between standards and curriculum,” Horne said. He defines standards as what a student should know by the end of the year, and curriculum as how those standards are taught.

His department, Horne said, simply wants to set minimum standards, and charter school students tend not only to meet them but to surpass them. But they will be less likely to do so in history, Horne said, if they are not being taught in a given year what the standards expect them to learn that year.

Where the confusion arose “simply mystifies me. I haven’t the foggiest idea,” Horne said.

Stifled Innovation

Scoggin likewise cited the charter schools’ history of high performance–they require a six-year liberal arts program and two years of calculus for every student, and they teach Aristotle, Dostoevsky, and Dickens.

But teaching history the state’s way, Scoggin said, would undermine the schools’ progress, micromanaging when and what they teach and forcing them to become more like district schools.

“Every year, the state’s required more and more curriculum alignment,” Scoggin said. “When are they going to stop? The regulations seem to increase every year.”

Need for Flexibility

Horne said he is concerned a ruling favoring the charter schools could completely undermine state standards. For the excellent charter schools, that wouldn’t make much of a difference, he said, but for underachieving schools, undermining standards as a whole could have catastrophic effects on children’s education.

He emphasized the standards don’t mandate how the charter schools plan their curricula. They simply set a minimum expectation for what students must learn through the course of the year.

Furthermore, he said, if standards don’t span from charters to public schools, children will lack the core knowledge they need to understand their classes if they transfer from one to another.

“[It would represent] a triumph of ideology over common sense,” Horne said.

But Scoggin said imposing the standards would undermine charter schools’ purpose. They’re supposed to be more flexible, he said, offering a unique curriculum with more innovative programs than public schools while still meeting basic graduation requirements.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.