Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
by Mary Beth Faller - May. 7, 2012 08:24 AM The Republic | azcentral.com
Charter education in Arizona is a model for the nation but is difficult to export because of laws in other states, charter-school leaders say.
U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle held a roundtable discussion on charter education last week at Scottsdale Preparatory Academy, where leaders of top charters in the Northeast Valley complained of being bound by regulations. The forum was the third he held in recent days, with previous ones focusing on the state of public education and innovation in science, technology, engineering and math in schools.
"As a new father, I've got some skin in the game and knowing there are choices for my daughter is a great thing," said Quayle, who became a parent seven months ago.
He asked representatives from three excelling charters -- the Basis and Great Hearts Academies networks and Benchmark Preschool and Elementary School in Phoenix -- to discuss innovation and how charter education can be grown.
Charter leaders said that requirements for teacher certification are the biggest stumbling blocks to expanding in other states.
Michael Block, who founded the Basis schools with his wife, Olga, said that he recently discussed what it would take to launch a Basis in Seattle.
"When they heard the requirements, they were aghast," he said at the forum. "We don't want a law requiring certified teachers and they have a problem with that. And we want curricular freedom."
Dan Scoggin, CEO of the Great Hearts Academies network in the Valley, agreed.
"We need the freedom to hire a teacher who has a degree in math or engineering, or a Ph.D. in English or history," he said.
If Arizona began requiring charter schools to hire certified teachers, "it would be a death knell," Scoggin said. "We would have to start our own teaching college."
Both agreed that the freedom available when charter schools began in the early 1990s is waning.
"When Olga and I founded Basis, if you didn't have a criminal record, if you had a non-laughable curriculum and a scant business plan, you could open a charter school," Block said. "There was very little input from the charter board, little control over the curriculum or oversight. You had to make sure your audit was clean and you didn't do anything illegal.
"That amount of freedom produced greatness, and it also produced problem schools. So there was a movement to get rid of the bad apples, and now it's starting to bind," he said.
Block cited the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which investigates complaints about discrimination and educational access, as one example of onerous federal regulations.
"The OCR is a modern-day gestapo. They threaten every bit of funding you have," Block said.
Scoggin said the larger networks can cope with the paperwork and staffing needed for compliance with the many state and federal laws.
"But the new-entry charters -- how do they survive with all the regulations?" he said. "I don't think I would start a charter school again. I would just go private. Although we like not charging tuition -- it's moral."
The educators told Quayle that they hold students to higher standards than traditional public schools do.
Roy Chancellor was an engineer for many years before switching careers, first teaching in a district school, then at Scottsdale Prep.
"We have kids take calculus for two years, and they do it. If you set the standards high, they will go there. But they won't go higher than your standards," he said.
One parent, Diane Lenniger, said a lack of rigor prompted her to switch her daughters from a high-performing district school to Scottsdale Prep.
"We saw the pace get slower and slower," she said. "The children left behind were the ones in the 80th percentile who sat and read while the teacher had to keep reviewing the lesson."
Katie Wingo, a first-grade teacher, said she took an $8,000 pay cut when she moved from a district school to Benchmark. "I have much more freedom," she said. "In the district schools, it's all reading and math and you have to get your scores."
The participants lamented that charters receive less funding than district schools because they cannot ask for additional property taxes for their schools.