Superintendent can't be charter school friend and executioner

Posted on September 14, 2007 | Type: Op-Ed
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Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has taken to the blogosphere and airwaves to defend the curriculum regulations that are the object of a lawsuit by five high-performing public charter schools. It turns out he can only defend the rules by flagrantly misrepresenting them.

Charter schools reflect an attempt to break the public education mold through parental choice and program diversity. As the second straight year of declining Scholastic Aptitude Test scores indicates, a one-size-fits-all approach to education doesnt work given the different skills and needs of children. Charter schools are given freedom to pursue innovative educational approaches, and in turn are held to high performance standards. The results are impressive: even though charters constitute only one in ten Arizona public schools, six of the states ten highest-performing schools are charter schools.

Horne characterizes himself as a strong supporter of charter schools, and charters have always viewed him that way. He concedes that the five schools that filed the lawsuit the BASIS Schools in Tucson and Scottsdale and the Great Hearts Academies (Veritas Prep, Chandler Prep, and Mesa Prep) are excellent. Why, then, has Horne sentenced charter schools to bureaucratic strangulation?

Horne denies this is so, insisting that all he has done is to create academic standards. The schools are all in favor of standards the higher the better. But central to the very concept of charter schools, and as enshrined in Arizona law, the standards applicable to charter schools are outcome standards, which measure how well students perform. The schools are free to determine how to reach those goals, through educational methods set forth in their charter contracts with the state. And the plaintiff schools do an excellent job, routinely scoring 100 percent on the states AIMS tests.

Acting by bureaucratic fiat, with no authority in state or federal law, Horne has changed the definition of standards to emphasize inputs. The states standards require that all public school students in the state take subjects with precisely defined content in designated grades. So that all children in fifth grade must take the same math, science, English, and social studies never mind if they lack the grounding to do so, or if they covered the material the previous year.

In social studies, for instance, Horne insists all students must learn American history, with extensively defined content, in 7th and 8th grades. The Great Hearts Schools see it differently: they believe students cannot truly learn American history without a solid grounding (far more than the state requires) in ancient and medieval history. That is what they teach in 7th and 8th grades, with American history the following year. Horne wants the schools to interject American history in the midst of studying ancient history, for the compelling educational reason that he says so.

A charter schools curriculum is central to its identity and mission. It is so sacrosanct that the charter contracts themselves prescribe a formal process governing any changes. Horne accuses the schools of wanting to renege on their charters; but to the contrary, the state regulators have bypassed the very process to which they agreed.

As a lawyer, Horne knows that settlement negotiations are supposed to remain confidential to encourage all parties to take part. Yet he divulged part of his settlement proposal that the charter schools provide alternative curriculum standards anyway. He fails to mention that the exemption from stifling state rules would last only until the state begins testing social studies, and that the charter schools (unlike other public schools) would be obligated to provide remediation for transferring students. He also omits that he flatly rejected a proposal to exempt schools that exceed state standards on the AIMS test leading one to wonder what the point of Hornes standards are in the first place.

Charter schools shouldnt have to agree to any deal that compromises their academic integrity and the proven educational programs embodied in their charters. In the aptly titled Star Wars Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader declares, I am altering the deal.?á Pray I dont alter it any further. Changing the rules of the game after play has begun benefits no one, least of all the students who supposedly are Hornes concern. The kids in these charter schools are doing fine but only if they can remain free of Hornes attempt to snuff out the essence of what makes charter schools special and successful.

Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Constitutional Litigation.

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