American Visionaries

By Lonnie Harp — November 29, 1995 12 min read

“I detect a kind of archetypal educator mentality of being frustrated by working within the system,” Maxwell says. “We are all striking out, some blindly and some wisely, but all of us looking for a new path.”

When he looks at the empty space in the Sunvalley Plaza, between the denture lab and the doll store, David Gordon sees a high school.

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American Visionaries

“To me, it looks like a great open campus,” he says, thinking of his future students wandering among the bookstore and the movie theaters down the sidewalk. “There are a lot of places kids could go for breaks. And the landlord is willing to renovate.”

He is not deterred by the vacant storefront that says America’s Music Dinner Theater couldn’t make a go of it. Nor is he dissuaded by the notion that, in a struggling shopping center on the outskirts of Mesa, $4,000 per student may not buy more for him than it does for the local schools.

The state of Arizona is going to give away as many as 50 licenses this year to run a school, and Gordon hopes to get one of them.

The ambitious 29-year-old, a certified social-studies teacher who now works for a credit-card-collection agency, has a plan to help students make noticeable leaps in their achievement. And he is far from alone.

Gordon is one of nearly 100 people who have filed applications in Arizona this year to win a charter school. They all have dreams. And they all need a little of the state’s cash to get them rolling.

In many ways, Arizona stands as a unique testing ground for the charter concept. Lawmakers here passed a charter school program in 1994 as unrestrictive as any in the country.

Several states have followed Minnesota’s lead and defined who can apply for charters. Others, like Michigan, set limits on how many uncertified teachers can work in the new schools.

In several states like California, Georgia, and Kansas, the schools are not always an independent business.

The Arizona law opens up the application process to the widest range of prospective proprietors and gives charter schools more latitude to operate. But having fewer hoops to jump through has also raised concerns that the “strong” law may produce weak schools.

It’s too early to say whether Arizona’s law will pay off for Arizona’s children. So far, its legacy is the most wide-open marketplace for new school ideas anywhere.

Arizona has approved 47 charter schools, quickly making it a major player among the 19 states with similar laws on the books. The state allows any public agency, individual, or private group to apply to create a school run with state aid and the promise of improved student achievement. Schools that don’t show results could lose their charters.

State officials say 23 educators, 13 community organizations, and two groups of parents were among last year’s initial charter winners. Thirteen private schools converted to charters.

The Glenmar Montessori School in Flagstaff is using the charter program as an opportunity to expand its existing pre-K-3 program up to the 6th grade. The Intelli-School in Glendale is a brand-new high school with computer-heavy, self-paced classrooms pointing teenagers toward high-tech jobs.

Fresh Hope

For longer than David Gordon has been alive, William Maxwell has been trying to sell someone on his own notion of schooling. He has approached countless foundations, talked it over with fellow education professors, and explained it again and again to school officials. He once thought he’d found a sponsor in Switzerland, but came up empty. Arizona’s charter school law may finally offer his dusty dream fresh hope.

Maxwell’s preliminary application for the Global Academy for International Athletics would establish a high school in a yet-to-be-named Arizona city that would serve about two dozen teenagers. But it only skims the surface of what he believes is a revolutionary concept in public schooling.

His plan revolves around a simple idea: Students with a top-notch education turn into adults with top-notch jobs who bring home top-notch paychecks. He wants to supply his students with the best possible education, at whatever it costs. Then, the plan goes, graduates will agree to pay him back for the cost of their schooling--minus the $4,000 he’ll get from the state each year--after they become prosperous adults.

He says he will guarantee each student at his charter school admission into one of the world’s 100 best colleges in exchange for what will be a niggling check once they have joined the ranks of the rich and famous.

To get his idea started, Maxwell is focusing on a sports-themed charter school, mostly because he figures that parents who see athletic promise in their children will go to extremes to get them the best training. He freely admits that $4,000 per student will not buy the world-class education he envisions. “Four thousand dollars is a poverty sum,” he insists. And he realizes that his idea is still at least a little extreme.

“The research is there--if you give a child a first-rate education, the return is phenomenal,” says Maxwell, an education professor at the Scottsdale branch of Ottawa University, which has its home base in Kansas. And though he has had little luck with the idea in the three decades since he developed his proposal, Maxwell hasn’t given up hope.

“I spent an incredible amount of what little income we had for several years, and nobody was interested,” he says. “But now I’m excited. With seed money from the state, this is my one big opportunity.”

‘Choice and Change’

In many ways, the state charter school office here works more like the Small Business Administration, processing loan applications from enthusiastic entrepreneurs, than an education agency. Everybody walks in with something to sell--which many experts argue is refreshing in itself. The public schools, they say, have been lulled into a trance--and no longer respond to things like the market and their customers and quality. Proponents of competition and deregulation say the dizzying noise of the charter school sales pitches sounds like music.

“We are hearing from a plethora of individuals, and the unifying trend is that everyone wants choice and change,” says Robert Mills, a special assistant to the president of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., and the director of the university’s charter school office.

In the past year, CMU has dealt with about 100 applicants and rejected half, granting 46 charters so far. Mills says the applications process usually takes the better part of a year. CMU officials ask applicants to set up a board of directors, line up at least $200,000 in start-up funds, and hire a lawyer.

California, which along with Michigan and Arizona is among the most active states in terms of granting charters, recently reached its state-imposed limit on charter schools: an even 100. Observers there say the applicants who didn’t make it to a final contract usually underestimated the financial planning involved.

“Most of the people we talk to have a background in education, but the ins and outs of finance are a mystery for a lot of people,” says Sue Bragato, the executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters. “We’ve made it a very difficult thing to do in California.”

In Arizona, a charter applicant can apply through the state charter board, which can grant up to 25 charters each year, or the state school board, which can approve an additional 25. Applicants can also seek approval from any school district in the state, although only a handful of the state’s charter schools have so far been approved that way. School districts are not limited in the number of charters they can grant.

Applicants must pass a criminal-background check and come out relatively clean on a credit check. They suggest a curriculum, put forward a business plan and budget, outline their house rules, and pay $32 for a fingerprint check of the school’s named sponsor. They must also take an oath that they’ll abide by the law’s few civil-rights and safety limits and agree to administer state tests. Applications last year ranged from the size of the Tucson Yellow Pages to the thickness of a high school book report.

The entire process is much more inviting and flexible than in Michigan, California, or most any other state.

Proponents of the law see Arizona’s freewheeling system as a poster-child for deregulation. Others, in Arizona and elsewhere, wonder what dangers lurk behind that lack of scrutiny. Already, there have been some startling examples.

In California, Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently complained that the Tubman Village School in San Diego stresses the religious teachings of Rudolph Steiner. Steiner, an Austrian occultist, founded a spiritualist society in 1912 that blended Hindu beliefs about reincarnation with Zoroastrianism, an ancient pre-Islamic religion. San Diego school district officials are still investigating the complaint.

In Michigan, the Noah Webster Academy in Ionia raised eyebrows last year with its plan to link home-schooling families via computer. Critics contended that the loose network with families would likely promote religious teaching by the parents. And after winning a charter from the local school district, the academy agreed to pay it a portion of its charter funding as administrative fees. The state never funded the school.

State officials in Arizona have promised to police the charter schools and hold them accountable for student results, but, beyond that, they pledge to maintain a hands-off approach.

That’s what worries the state’s largest teachers’ union. “We support ideas and innovations and teachers being able to make decisions, but there is still the question of the impact on children by what everyone is calling experiments,” says Judith Sebastian, the director of educational policy and practice at the Arizona Education Association.

The union has been drawn into the issue because charter schools are not required to hire certified teachers. “There is such a desire at the state level for charter schools to spread and succeed that they haven’t really looked yet at how you protect students from people who are only out to make a name for themselves or promote some philosophy,” Sebastian says.

There are, after all, scores of reasons to sell something, as Arizona officials learned last year when they sorted through their first batch of charter school applications. Some people wanted to see how much young children might learn from studying basal readers and intensive phonics, some wanted to push heavy doses of careerism or discipline on teenagers, others were just looking for a new line of work.

Ernest and Delite Gaddie’s proposed McGuffey Basic School for K-6 students in Mesa never got off the ground after state officials discovered that until 1991 the couple had run the Mountain States Technical Institute near Phoenix. The trade school, specializing in training heating and cooling technicians and clerical workers, closed abruptly as federal officials were preparing to cite the Gaddies for the school’s high student default rate on federal loans.

The Human Resources Academy, a counseling center in Mesa, applied for a charter to open a high school for troubled youths that would contract with the East Valley Youth and Family Support Centers. But after winning approval last May, the charter was denied in June when state officials learned that the state psychologists’ board had suspended the license of the East Valley center’s president in April after patients filed eight complaints.

The Phoenix Academy of Learning was approved and then scrapped after concerns that it planned to use a textbook written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the controversial Church of Scientology, and intended to send all its teachers to an out-of-state training program.

Despite the rejects, the state has created dozens of new schools. They range from Montessori kindergarten programs to the year-round ungraded sister schools known as EduPrize and EduPreneurship to an ambitious Phoenix high school called Citizen 2000. With its focus on multicultural and international education, Citizen 2000 offers its 7th to 12th graders classes in English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, and Zulu, as well as formal training in ballroom dancing, etiquette, and international protocol.

Improvement Through Change

“Some people perceive this as a way to create a small business, some teachers have said this provides an opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, and some parents see a chance to seize control of their child’s education,” says Kathryn Kilroy, the former executive director of state’s charter school office.

“If I were a board member,” she says, “my first question would be, ‘What is your motivation?’ Because if you’re not focused on pupil achievement and parent and student choice, you’re missing what all of this is about.”

The underlying thought is that innovation will spark performance--that a $4,000 check for every kid who signs up, a license to school children without a step-by-step guide, and some state planning money will enable charter schools to boost students past their public school peers.

That is what’s written between the lines of David Gordon’s business plan for his proposed Global Renaissance Academy of Distinguished Education. “The mission of grade is to provide a superior and vigorous academic program that promotes a humanistic education where students develop cultural literacy, an appreciation of knowledge (it is power) creativity, responsibility, interactive skills, progressive citizenship values, and cognitive proficiency in areas such as writing, critical thinking, problem analysis, and communication,” he writes.

Gordon wasn’t happy as a substitute social-studies teacher in Lake Havasu City last year and knows that his collection-agency job amounts to biding time. So he is working 10 to 20 hours each week to write a solid application.

To gain every advantage, he has attended all the workshops the state has offered to help applicants. “I am planning diligently,” he says.

He is hoping that after the state’s two charter-granting boards judge this year’s applications and interview the finalists, he will be among the 50 who get a charter. Then, the real challenge of surviving as a business and turning $4,000 per student into something educational will begin.

William Maxwell faces a tougher climb. His school must still clear the hurdles of the Arizona law’s prohibitions against selective admissions and discrimination based on athletic ability. But he says he will find a way to make his idea a reality through the charter school law. It is a determination that he sees on the faces of most of the people who gather at the charter school orientation sessions he has been attending.

“I detect a kind of archetypal educator mentality of being frustrated by working within the system,” Maxwell says. “We are all striking out, some blindly and some wisely, but all of us looking for a new path.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as American Visionaries