Off To Market

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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.

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