Published Online: April 9, 1997

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Charter schools are still new enough here to be deemed an experiment, one that some parents are willing to take a gamble on and that others want no part of.

In Arizona, charter applicants can apply through the state board of education or the state charter board, each of which can grant up to 25 charters a year. Local districts can charter as many schools as they wish, but the state has sponsored the majority of Arizona's charter schools. In exchange for roughly $4,000 per student in state aid, the charter school pledges to meet performance goals, administer state tests, and abide by state and federal rules on health, safety, civil rights, insurance, bookkeeping, and children with disabilities. After that, it's up to the schools to spend the money, meet the rules, and entice enough parents to keep the school afloat.

Charter schools are still new enough here to be deemed an experiment, one that some parents are willing to take a gamble on and that others want no part of. Some parents have chosen to take that leap for smaller class sizes, safer schools, greater control, or a philosophical allegiance to the charter school and school choice movement. Others have done it because they have a neighbor who sends his children to a charter school. Or they figure it's the next-best thing to a private school, minus the price tag.

"We've maintained from the beginning that a failing school should be closed and closing a failing school is a plus for the movement," John Kakritz, the executive director of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said shortly after Citizen 2000 closed. "Schools have been failing for years; I think that's why we all got into this reform movement. The failure of a school being connected with its closing is a step in the right direction."

It's clear not everyone--particularly parents who have seen their schools founder--agrees. And parents like Davis have voted with their feet. Still, for other parents, the benefits of charter schools outweigh whatever risk they perceive the market holds.

Yolanda Fortune is one of the parents who became a repeat charter school customer after Citizen 2000 locked its doors. But she's starting to have doubts. She had pulled her children out of their public school where, she says, there were few other African-American students.

"There were just a lot of little issues that I didn't think were fair. I think they were racist," says Fortune, who works as a prison counselor.

Fortune wanted a place her children--and she--would feel more comfortable. Citizen 2000, with predominantly African-American and Hispanic student and staff rosters, fit the bill. As the school year wore on, she heard the rumors about the school's troubles but says she wanted to support the school as "the underdog."

When the school closed, she heard about another charter school from a friend. But the school hasn't lived up to her expectations. Now that she's moved her family into another school district, she plans to switch her children into the regular public schools.

"I don't want to just be bouncing them around. But I'm really not happy," Fortune says. "I'm done with charter schools. After this year, I'm done. It's too stressful. They were just thrown out there so fast, they should have prepared these schools more."

For Cheryl Finley, the reason for not enrolling her children in another charter school after Citizen 2000 closed is simple: transportation. That's part of the reason she moved her children from the Mesa public schools to Citizen 2000 in the first place.

As a single mother, she didn't like the fact that Roxanne and Rene, now 14 and 15, had to spend so many hours alone at home before she made it back from her job downtown as a tax auditor. She knew members of the charter school director's family and knew Citizen 2000 was opening within blocks of her office. It was good while it lasted: Her children went to the public library until Finley got off work, and the three would then ride the bus home to Mesa together. She couldn't find any suitable charter schools close enough for them to attend after Citizen 2000 closed.

"What I don't like is that in charters, it's make it or break it. And that's not right. The kids are the ones who suffer."

Sarah Gonzales
Mother of two charter school students

Although she says she's not wholly dissatisfied with the Mesa district schools, she's not overly impressed either. She expects her daughters to attend college and has heard good things about a college-preparatory charter high school in Mesa. She plans to send them to that school next fall when Ren‚ is old enough to drive.

"To me, charters are no more of a risk than sending my kids to another school," Finley says. "I'd rather have a risk that my kid's school be shut down than my kid going to a school where they'd be shot at or surrounded by drugs. It's a risk everywhere you turn."

Challenge Charter School's black-and-white banner hangs from the second floor of the Community Church of Joy administration building. Apart from the thin white church spire visible from the school's corner office, Challenge looks like pretty much any other public school. It is to this Glendale school, says Challenge's chief executive officer, Gregory Miller, that the charter school "refugees" have flocked. Since opening in fall 1996, many of Challenge's 155 students have come from Citizen 2000 and Dragonfleye.

Sarah Gonzales, a single mother of four, is one of those refugees. She used to work in the public schools as an administrative assistant, then took a job with Citizen 2000 and moved most of her children, too. She was attracted by the smaller environment and the staff's commitment. She had become increasingly frustrated with what she saw as the public school's failure to communicate with her about her children, especially 12-year-old Alfred, whom she calls "my little pistol."

When things fell apart at Citizen 2000, she met Challenge's Gregory and Pam Miller. The husband and wife team offered her a job and her children spots in the school. She didn't hesitate to say yes. If anything, Gonzales says, the Citizen 2000 experience has only strengthened her resolve about charter schools and the control she now feels over her children's education.

"I believe in charter schools. I want my choice. If the schools can't take the time to call me or get involved, then I might as well put them somewhere where I know where my money is going to," Gonzales says. "So it's like I want a Chevy, but the state says no, you can only have a Ford. Well, I want a Chevy, and it's a charter school. At the old school, their policy says, 'We welcome parents,' but that's not how I felt. Here, I feel respected.

"But what I don't like is that in charters, it's make it or break it. And that's not right. The kids are the ones who suffer," Gonzales says.

A longtime booster parent, Pam Miller now has a hand in both traditional public schools and charter schools and a vested interest in seeing both succeed. She is Challenge's director and the president of the Paradise Valley district's school board. But she says she's frustrated by comparisons drawn between charter schools and free enterprise because the commodity at stake is not a car or box of cereal, but children.

"People say, well, what other business has only a 2 percent failure rate, and they aren't talking about the kids. Well, to me, 2 percent is too many. Kids have been scarred, and we did hurt them," she says. "I don't know that all parents know about the risk."

At EduPreneurship, a Scottsdale charter school with a real-world business bent, talk about consumers and the marketplace is not uncommon. But parents here say marketplace risk is far from their minds. They've heard about other charter schools going bust, but chalk it up to individual school foibles. By all accounts, EduPreneurship is a charter school success story with a loyal parent following. They are here for everything from smaller, multiage classes, common-sense discipline, location, or simply because nothing else has worked for their kids.

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