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Charter schools are the latest product in Arizona's education marketplace. Why are some parents eagerly buying while others want a refund?

Victor Diaz is passionate about his family. And, he admits, he's very protective of his children. In the evenings, when he finishes his job downtown as a social-service worker, he comes home to care for his three daughters while his wife, Veronica, works.

"I want to know that I am raising my children, not a nanny or a child-care center or a school," Diaz says.

Diaz and his family live in what he calls a gang-infested neighborhood in South Phoenix. His two school-age daughters, Vanessa and Victoria, who are in 2nd and 1st grades, used to attend the local district elementary school, the same school his wife went to years before. But things have changed. While Diaz had no complaints about his daughters' teachers, he felt school security and discipline were sorely lacking.

"I'd see 3rd graders French-kissing in the alley or smoking cigarettes or dressed up in gang clothes. It was shocking. I said no way. No more. I don't want my kids in the cross-fire," Diaz says.

If it weren't for the costly tuition, he says, he'd send his children to a private Christian school. Two years ago, when Vanessa was in kindergarten, his wife heard about the opening of Citizen 2000--a charter school touting an ambitious multicultural curriculum coupled with tight discipline and mandatory school uniforms and Diaz signed up. Impressed with the school's commitment, he eventually joined the charter school's governing board.

The Diaz family has reaped the benefits of Arizona's wide-open education marketplace,

which has allowed the state to open more charter schools more quickly than anywhere else in the country.

As public, state-funded schools, charter schools operate free from many rules that govern traditional public schools. In the competition for parents and students, charter schools are intended to force traditional public schools to better educate their charges and become more responsive to what parents and students want and need from public education.

Good charter schools that are well-managed will make it, the theory goes, because the free market demands it. And, by design, schools that are bad or poorly managed will shut down.

The Diaz family has experienced the marketplace's downside firsthand. By the end of Citizen 2000's first year, the K-12 school had dropped its high school grades, due in part to financial problems. But Vanessa and Victoria were happy and making good grades. Then, rumors about the school's shaky finances grew louder, and some parents withdrew their children, but Diaz stuck it out.

Last November, after months of negotiations, the state board of education yanked the charter it had granted Citizen 2000, citing numerous financial discrepancies. It was the first time the state had shut down an operating charter school.

The school's director declared bankruptcy, and the school closed its doors, sending Diaz and the parents of roughly 200 children scurrying to find new schools--mostly other charter schools, state officials say.

Late last month, a state grand jury indicted Citizen 2000's director, Lawndia White Venerable, on 31 counts of theft, fraud, and the misuse of public money. The state alleges that Venerable intentionally inflated attendance figures to garner more state aid and used school accounts to repay personal debts and to make such personal purchases as jewelry and swimming pool supplies.

But in spite of the Citizen 2000 debacle, Diaz remains steadfast in his support of charter schools. "I still think it's a good system," he says. "I still think my girls are benefiting, and I know they're safe. But when I look for a charter school for their high school, I'm doing my homework."

Challenge Charter School in Glendale took on many Citizen 2000 teachers, and parents like Diaz followed suit. His daughters now spend an hour and a half riding the bus to Challenge, tucked in metropolitan Phoenix's northern reaches.

The vast majority of Arizona's charter schools have thrived--or at least survived--in the marketplace. As long as they meet certain performance goals and follow certain rules, the state allows them to continue operating. But some parents have been put to the test of the charter school movement's free-market credo and have emerged with vastly different views.

Many charter school proponents say the very fact that a failing charter school can shut its doors strengthens the movement.

For parents like Pat Davis, the risks now feel too great. Davis was looking for a taste of the hometown flavor her family had left behind in Nebraska before moving to Arizona.

Her children, 13-year-old Devon and 11-year-old Kara, did fine at their public school in Nebraska, but the principal at their school in Phoenix had branded them troublemakers. Davis heard about Dragonfleye Charter School from a group of district parents who were also fed up with the principal. Dragonfleye advertised itself as a small, hands-on, science-oriented school featuring a lab chock-full of animals.

"Even if they had charged tuition, I would've paid it because I wanted a hands-on education, a home environment. I believed in it," Davis says.

Davis and other parents helped set up the school, painting walls and cleaning bathrooms. Last spring, Dragonfleye shut down temporarily following a bitter, long-running power struggle between Gregory Miller--one of the school's board members--and the school's founder and director.

After a barrage of legal battles between the factions, most of Dragonfleye's teachers walked out of the school with Miller and a slew of parents, like Davis, in tow. They held classes in a nearby church to finish out the last few weeks of the school year. By fall, Challenge Charter School had set up shop, and Davis and other parents from Dragonfleye signed on.

But Challenge had its own initial problems. Many teachers who left Dragonfleye had a hard time adjusting and were either fired or quit, including those who taught Devon and Kara. Davis found out that their old district school had brought in a new principal, one she felt she could work with. So she pulled her kids from Challenge and put them back in the district school. Some Dragonfleye parents had talked up other charter schools they had gone on to. But Davis didn't want to take the chance.

"I just don't think I can do it again. I got burned out," says Davis, who works at a preschool downstairs from Challenge at the Lutheran church where the charter school rents space. "I have friends [from Dragonfleye] who are saying, 'Never again.' I'm more wary of charter schools now, definitely. My kids need stability."

Many charter school proponents say the very fact that a failing charter school can shut its doors strengthens the movement. Traditional public schools have failed for years and still remain open, they say.

What determines a charter school's survival ultimately are parents. They are the ones exercising the choice in the school choice movement. They are the consumers of charter schools' free-market brand of education where the strong survive and customer satisfaction drives whether a school lives or dies.

The state this month may move to shut down another charter school, designed to serve students at risk of failing or dropping out of school. In visits to the Lake Havisu Charter School in Lake Havisu City, education department officials say they found almost no evidence of an instructional program and various violations of health, safety, and civil rights rules. Some fear that Arizona's highly publicized problems will dampen the market.

In a state with a deep tradition of deregulation, Arizona lawmakers in 1994 passed what is considered the nation's most freewheeling charter school law. The Arizona law gives the schools more latitude to operate and has opened up the application process to the widest range of prospective proprietors, from businesspeople who want to try their hand at running a for-profit school to parents and educators in search of innovation. Arizona is home to about a third of the nation's charter schools. About 17,000 students are enrolled in roughly 160 such schools in Arizona.

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.

"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.

Vol. 16, Issue 28, Page 34-39

Published in Print: April 9, 1997, as Off To Market
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