Charter schools, state in court over social-studies plan

Posted on August 04, 2007 | Type: In the News
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Five charter schools are taking legal action against the Arizona Department of Education in hopes of maintaining their social-studies curriculum.

At stake is whether some of the schools can keep teaching U.S. history in ninth grade instead of following state standards that say the material should be taught in seventh and eighth grades as well in fifth and other some other grades.

This comes as the Department of Education mandates that all public schools, which include charter schools, align their social-studies curriculum to state standards. Those standards are broken down by grade.

The charter schools, which receive funding from the state, say the move would harm their academic freedom and curtail their efforts to provide an excelled-learning environment.

Students at Mesa, Veritas and Chandler preparatory academies learn classical and medieval history in middle school. But Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the schools - like the rest of Arizona's public schools - must follow state academic standards.

The debate will come to a head Monday when the schools and the department will go before a Maricopa County Superior Court.

The BASIS charter schools in Scottsdale and Tucson also are named in the suit. They concentrate on American history in seventh grade but still are concerned with the curriculum alignment.

Horne said not aligning the curriculum with state standards violates the contract the schools have with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, which approves the status of the schools.

Nearly 10 percent of the students who attend a public school in Arizona attend a charter school.

"It's a matter of principle. If they don't follow them in social studies, they could decide not to teach division," Horne said. "Kids would go into the world not knowing how to divide. . . . Students are notoriously ignorant of their history. To preserve democratic institutions, our students will have to know history."

Social studies are not part of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. Horne hopes they will be added to the test in coming years. His proposal is to test the subject in Grades 3, 6, 7 and high school.

But the charter schools maintain that their suit isn't an attack against standards or high-stakes testing. In fact, Daniel Scoggin, CEO of Great Hearts Academy, which runs the three preparatory academies, said their students do quite well on standardized tests. This year, 97 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders at Chandler Prep passed all three subjects tested in AIMS.

Scoggin said if they were forced to follow the grade-by-grade standards, the schools would have to move teachers around and reorganize their curriculum, creating a domino effect since much of what students learn is related and reinforced throughout their educational career. The school serves Grades 7 through 12.

"We have to make a clear stand to protect the integrity of our six-year program," Scoggin said. "For the sake of uniformity, you should not start to compromise excellence. Where does it stop? Are they going to tell us what we can teach at every moment? We have proven results."

The way Scoggin defines standards is a list of what students should master by graduation.

When the department mandated that schools align their curricula in math, English and science, it wasn't an issue because their outlines basically matched what the state required, said Clint Bolick, director of Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, which is representing the schools. But this change calls for an overhaul.

However, Horne said the state standards ensure that American history is taught. He asks the schools to offer ideas on how the standards could be reorganized when they will be up for revision in about six years. Horne also said these are minimum standards schools could cover in a few months and move on to other material.

Regardless, supporters of charter schools say the requirements would create one-size-fits-all education.

"Curriculum alignment forces the schools to dumb down their curriculum," Bolick said. "The (department) has the power to set standards and test those standards but not the power to write curriculum."

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