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"Charter schools just take the government out of it and let the teachers teach the way they know how."

Bill Beisgen
Father of three charter school students

The K-8, 88-student school--one of the state's first charter schools--has attracted about 40 families, many of whom have stuck with the school from the beginning. On a recent night, throngs of parents, grandparents, and siblings have gathered for a Renaissance-theme open house that feels like a family reunion. Students are staging their thespian works under the schoolyard's draping olive trees, while others hawk student-made jewelry and poetry.

"I love this," says Ami Ledford, handing a $5 bill to Andrea, 11, and Christina, 8, as they scramble away to buy Cokes. "You just don't find something like this at the public schools. We routinely get 35 parents at a meeting here. We were thrilled if we got five parents at a PTA meeting at our old school."

The stockbroker's assistant says she didn't know anything about charter schools when a friend dropped an EduPreneurship flier at her house. It wasn't the school's business theme that drew her in. It was the small classes--about 16 students for every teacher vs. 34 in Andrea's previous school--and the school's positive attitude toward parents.

"I don't like all the layers and bureaucracy from public schools; it just seems like a waste of our tax money," she says. "Here, you talk to Sammans and Peschka, that's it. They're the board, principal, and everything else. I can go to the head person any day I want to. I like that."

With two decades of teaching in the public schools under her belt, Carol Sammans was six years away from retirement when she launched EduPreneurship with Ann Peschka, who worked as the technology director for the same school as Sammans. Sammans was burned out and thought the charter route might be just the thing to invigorate her.

"There's too much centralization, top-down, fill-in-the-blank teaching. And no one was doing anything about it because we were all tired," she says in trademark turbo-speak. "After waiting for this tremendous change--and not seeing it happen--I now see that change has to come from the bottom up, and it's going to hurt. They call us the cowboys of the Wild West out here, and they're right."

If you had told Sammans 10 years ago that she'd give the thumbs-up to charter schools and private school vouchers, she'd have laughed. Not now. Nestled away on a quiet residential street, the low-slung building Sammans rents from the Scottsdale public schools still bears silver letters spelling "Apache" that harken to the time the district used the building as an elementary school. Lest there be any doubt, EduPreneurship has added a sign, now barely visible in the soft dusk light, that reads: "Free public school. Not affiliated with the Scottsdale school district."

Bill Beisgen took comfort in Sammans' strong education background when he and his wife, Helen, decided to send their daughters here. They felt Natalie, 13, was being left behind at their Scottsdale district school. And, after hearing about children smoking cigarettes and making out on campus, they didn't like what they felt was a lack of control at school.

"We felt assured Carol knew what she was doing. And she was frustrated with the system too," says Beisgen, a swimming pool salesman. "But we weren't as upset with the public schools as some others we know are."

In fact, he plans to send his three daughters to the district high schools because he thinks charter schools, which are often run on shoestring budgets, can't provide all the extras like competitive sports teams and clubs. But he's definitely drawn to what he sees as the charter school concept.

"Charter schools just take the government out of it and let the teachers teach the way they know how. I'm a firm believer that too much government makes everybody's life miserable. It just got too big in the schools," Beisgen says.

For now, the verdict on charter schools here seems mixed.

But for others, the charter school concept is irrelevant. Mala Mahashina was drawn to EduPreneurship's creative spirit. Her son, Alex Mulloney, 10, had been in private Montessori schools since he was a toddler. EduPreneurship, Mahashina thought, was a good compromise between a public and private school: "A dose of reality." While she says she'd do anything for the school, she feels no allegiance to the charter school movement.

"I'd drive 50 or 60 miles a day to get the right school for Alex," Mahashina says. "If I weren't happy, believe me, I'd be out of here in a heartbeat and forget about the charter movement."

The charter school buzz is slowly, but surely, wending its way to potential customers. Some charter schools advertise regularly in such magazines and other publications as Raising Arizona Kids and Arizona Parenting. Others have taken their pitches to preschools.

The state, for its part, has moved to tighten its charter program, more closely scrutinizing charter applications and monitoring individual schools. Arizona education department pamphlets now urge parents to research their charter schools by reviewing everything from the school's bylaws and articles of incorporation to professional-development plans and quarterly financial statements.

"It's a shared responsibility" between the state and parents to ask questions and gather information about charter schools, says Kathi Haas, the Arizona education department's director of charter school administration. "It's not a 'buyer beware,' but people have to make an intelligent choice in the marketplace of education in terms of what they're getting into. I wouldn't pretend to assume that everybody understands what a charter school is."

For now, the verdict on charter schools here seems mixed.

At the Campus Children's Center in Tempe, preschool parents like Debbie Delaney are intrigued by charter schools, but say they aren't yet seriously considering them. She thinks her local school district can deliver, so she'll likely send 5-year-old Connor there.

Thomas Boylan, whose son Matthew will enter kindergarten in the fall, has heard that the charter schools near him in Chandler have long waiting lists. And anyway, the neighborhood school is only half a mile from home, test scores there are high, and most of the local kids are headed there. "Some charters sound pretty interesting," says Boylan, a computer analyst. He expects Matthew to do OK in the public schools; if not, maybe then he would consider a charter school for his son. "One downside to me is that they don't have to have certified teachers. That's a bit worrisome."

For other parents, publicity about the failed few has taken a toll. Add to that local headlines about students who've run into problems having their charter school credits recognized by traditional public schools, and the warning light goes off in Lee Stein's head.

"I'm a bit wary of them and spooked by the lack of oversight and all that stuff. I have a fair amount of confidence in our school district, and I'm not so sure I want my kids to be in an experimental program," says Stein, whose son Alex will start kindergarten next year. He and his wife, Randie, are trying to decide between keeping him at his downtown day-care center or moving him to the same district that Lee attended growing up. "I'm not a risky person by nature. The risk may have a huge up side, but it may also have a huge down side."

Clearly, marketplace risk is in the eye of the beholder. And for parents like Victor Diaz, the predictability of what his daughters Vanessa and Victoria were likely to get from their public schools felt like a much greater risk than trying out a charter school.

"We really felt like we didn't have much to lose," Diaz says.

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