Charter Schools Sue Arizona Over Course Mandates

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Arizona has long offered a welcoming climate not only for retirees, but also for charter schools, with a law that's generally deemed to make it easy to start the autonomous public schools.

Now, though, the state education agency is being sued by several Arizona charters that say the state is getting too meddlesome.

"There has been a regulatory creep that has begun to infect charter schools," said Clint Bolick, a prominent school choice lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs. "This started off as a relatively modest incursion that's grown into a significant assault on curricular independence."

The case is Mr. Bolick's first as the director of the new constitutional-law center at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank that backs school choice.

At issue, according to papers filed by the plaintiffs June 22, are new state rules spelling out grade by grade when all schools, including charters, must offer specific social studies courses, such as U.S. history. The plaintiff charters are among the highest-performing schools in Arizona.

Douglas G. Nick, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, said that charters enjoy a lot of flexibility, and that the state is simply trying to ensure all schools teach to minimum standards.

"We're huge fans of charter schools," he said. "We have done nothing to inhibit their ability to teach curriculum in the way they want."

Social Studies a Sticking Point

The lawsuit, filed in the Maricopa County superior court, says the state in 2003 began requiring charters to align their curricula with state standards.

The schools have met the demands for language arts, mathematics, and science, saying those required only modest adjustments. But last year, the state told charters they would have to align with new social studies standards.

The plaintiffs say the requirement will "disrupt and displace" schools' curricula, forcing major changes, and that the state lacks authority to demand curricular alignment.

Todd M. Ziebarth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he was unaware of any similar lawsuits against states on charter autonomy.

"There is a concern in the charter world generally about reregulation," he said. "Some states initially freed up charters, and then over time, it's easy for the system to pull the charters back in gradually."

Vol. 26, Issue 43

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