After 20 years, charter schools have become an integral part of AZ education

Gary Grado//June 20, 2014

After 20 years, charter schools have become an integral part of AZ education

Gary Grado//June 20, 2014

Katy Cardenas, executive director of the New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cokk Photography)
Katy Cardenas, executive director of the New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cokk Photography)

Armando Ruiz started Espiritu Schools by bulldozing apartments on family-owned property to make room for a few portable buildings to serve as classrooms.

The former south Phoenix lawmaker stood on the school grounds in Phoenix in June 2014 and pointed to where a mountain of 10,000 tires once rose next to 300 rusty, dilapidated cars.

He laughed to think children once learned and played next to a salvage yard.

“That’s life in south Phoenix,” said Ruiz.

The tires and cars are long gone. Espiritu, which stands in the shadow of South Mountain with its two sister schools and now takes up nearly a city block, is one of the original 68 schools to open a little more than a year after the June 17, 1994, passage of a law allowing charter schools in Arizona. Twenty years later, less than half, or 32, of those schools exist, but the charter-school experiment gained permanence and has become an essential part of kindergarten through 12th grade education in Arizona.

Charters, which are privately run with public money, educate an estimated 190,000 children in 602 schools, out of the state’s roughly 1 million public students. The schools began with few restrictions, no blueprint for success and a pioneering spirit that Ruiz compares to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, in which thousands of people lined up and rushed off to stake a land claim at the sound of a cannon.
“You need people who are pioneers,” Ruiz said. “It was like literally, ‘Go West young man.’”

And while the focus of the state Charter Schools Board has changed from quantity to quality over the years, some charter owners and other advocates think the system is becoming over-regulated.

A stealth bill passes
If it weren’t for Republican lawmakers trying and failing to pass a school voucher program, charter school legislation wouldn’t have passed in the 1994 special session, or maybe not passed at all.

Charter schools were part of larger package known as the School Improvement Act. The law, meant to improve student achievement, allowed the state Board of Education and the state Board for Charter Schools to sponsor individual charter schools. The measure passed easily.

Nearly the same charter language was in a regular session bill that included education vouchers, which split GOP lawmakers. That bill failed.

Ruiz, who in 1994 had just finished a 10-year run in the Legislature, said south Phoenix residents and Hispanic leaders were reform-minded because the schools there had been failing for decades.

He knew he could get the support of Democrats, especially two in his district who he helped to get elected, if the vouchers were stripped off the bill.

The bill’s Republican sponsor, Lisa Graham Keegan, said the heated debate and close vote on the version with vouchers wore out lawmakers, leaving the charter school provision unexamined.

“Everyone would tell us, ‘Look if you take the vouchers out we’ll be fine with whatever your charter thing is, we don’t care,’” Keegan said. “Nobody knew what they were, really, and it was more a matter of people not knowing what we had.”

There was very little news coverage of the bill’s passage at the time, which Ruiz said was by design, calling it a stealth bill that was moved quickly.

“Once the vouchers came off, people were celebrating: The voucher bill is dead, the voucher bill is dead,” Ruiz said. He smiled with a gleam in his eye at the memory.

Fliers on windshields
Ron Caya is a pottery maker and he ran the arts program for Peoria Unified School District in 1994. He had come to the conclusion that most traditional public school arts programs didn’t challenge talented artists, so he decided to jump aboard the charter movement, knowing very little about it, and joining the original group of schools to get charters.

“Everybody thought I had rocks in my head,” Caya said.

One of Caya’s first obstacles was the Scottsdale Unified School District, whose board voted against leasing him a vacant building. He also wasn’t allowed to recruit students on district property either, so he used his contacts in the arts community to put fliers in show programs and promote the opening of his school at intermissions of shows. He and a team of parents placed fliers on windshields outside of eighth-grade graduations.

He opened with 200 students in the former Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale.

“We got a lot of word of mouth business because a lot of parents and students were just waiting for this kind of thing, and I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me at one time or another, ‘If you hadn’t started this school Bill or John or Gladys or whatever, would probably have never graduated with anything,’” Caya said.

Caya, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., retired in 2008, but the school, New School for the Arts and Academics, is still open.
Keegan said there were roughly 85 applicants in the first year, most of them trying to serve low-income areas.

“That’s quite frankly why a bunch of them failed. There were a lot of people who had not started businesses before. They didn’t fail so much academically as much financially. It was just a lack of knowledge about running a business,” Keegan said.

She said that no one really knew what made a quality charter school because no one had ever asked the question.

“Twenty years later we know. This 20 years has been phenomenal for the country, not just for charter schools, but for district schools as well with all of the emphasis on what is working and for whom, particularly lower-income kids,” Keegan said.

Ruiz said there were a handful of high-profile closings that gave charters a black eye, with some of the owners “doing some really dumb things.”

He said one school owner used state money intended for maintenance and operation to buy a house.

The Charter Board also took heat for neglecting to inform police in 1998 about a charter owner suspected of molesting students. The owner, Kathoum Mutab, was released from the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2013, after serving most of a 12-year sentence for attempted child molestation.

A series of stories published in the ~East Valley Tribune~ in 1998 also documented how some schools had teachers with criminal records or little or no education, and schools were falling by the wayside from financial problems.

“In that land rush, not everybody made it,” Ruiz said. “And the charter school rush; not everybody made it.”

The best of both worlds
While Ruiz and Caya represent the pioneer spirit of the early years of the charter movement, William Gregory and Aaron Hale, owners of Legacy Traditional Schools, represent the present.

Gregory is a former charter-school teacher who wanted to get into administration and Hale is a CPA. They spent a lot of time talking about what makes a good school and realized they had the makings for a perfect partnership.

“We decided let’s go for it,” Gregory said. “We had six weeks to submit our first charter and we had it approved.”

The first school opened in 2007 with 425 students. Legacy today has 8,500 K-8 students on eight campuses throughout the state and plans to open three more in the near future.

The typical charter school is housed in a strip mall, a renovated school building or a church. Legacy schools are more like traditional public junior high and high schools campuses, with features many charter schools don’t have, such as hardwood-floor gymnasiums and science labs.

“We really do build our schools to exceed what they get in the (traditional) public schools,” Gregory said.

The schools cost between $12 million and $20 million to build, but Hale said it’s worth it because they don’t want students to have to sacrifice good facilities for higher achievement. “They get the best of both worlds,” he said.

Hale and Gregory work with a developer to put up the money to build the schools and then purchase them back.

Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said there has been a complete sea change in recent years in the accountability of charter schools.

Sigmund, who has overseen the association for seven years, said the attitude in the state used to be to let any school open and let the “wild flowers bloom.”

“The accountability hammer has really come down on charter schools and the ability to even open a charter is completely different,” Sigmund said.

She said the charter board has become stricter in opening and monitoring schools and is not shy about closing them when they aren’t performing up to standards.

The board closed 112 schools from 2009 to 2013 for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of enrollment, failing to meet academic requirements and financial problems.

School charters are good for 15 years, and on June 9, 32 schools were up for renewal. The board closed eight of them and allowed six others to remain open with conditions and under strict monitoring.

A charter is reviewed every five years and a school can be closed at any time.

Keegan, an education consultant, said it can take too long to close low-performing schools because of the administrative process that has grown over the years around school closure, but the board remains adamant about closing them as quickly as possible.

“We know when you’re not going to get better, we know what it looks like when you’re not trying very hard,” Keegan said.
Sigmund warned, however, that over-regulation will harm charter schools and that lawmakers are going to have to be careful in the future, as there are nine other federal and state agencies that impose regulations or some sort of oversight of charter schools besides the charter board.

“Autonomy and freedom from regulation, as far as I’m concerned, is a myth,” Sigmund said.

Hale said charter schools are going to continue to expand because they provide choice, but he said lawmakers have to resist over-regulation and allow them to be incubators of innovation.

“As we continue to move forward we’re going to see that both charter schools and district schools that struggle will cease,” Hale said.

Stories Behind the Schools

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools don’t come with neighborhood developments. Each charter has a unique story behind its founding and its mission.

Espiritu Schools and New School for the Arts and Academics were there in the beginning when the state issued 68 charters in 1995 with little oversight or restrictions. Legacy Traditional Schools didn’t come around until 2007, but the schools have joined the growing number of larger corporations that have entered the charter school business.

Here are their stories.

Espiritu was the fifth school to get a charter, and school founder Armando Ruiz still has the original signed certificate from May 8, 1995.
Ruiz, who worked behind the scenes to pass the 1994 legislation that created charter schools, had only 90 days to get financing, land, a building and students.

Recruitment came in back yard meetings. He brought in portable buildings and began construction on a small plot of land, even before the land sale to him hadn’t closed.

Ruiz said his father sat on a tractor poised to tear down apartments on another plot of land. The apartments at the time were financing his father’s retirement.

“He said, ‘Are you sure this is going to work?’” Ruiz said. He didn’t think twice before giving his father the go-ahead to demolish the buildings.

Eight months into the first year, Ruiz applied for a $1 million grant from the National Football League Super Bowl Committee when the game was played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe in 1996.

Ruiz said Tempe was the presumed winner of the grant because the Super Bowl was in the city and the Arizona Cardinals have a practice facility there, but the group he put together made a winning pitch.

“What we were selling was hope — education can get better. In low income, minority communities, you can bring high quality educational opportunities for kids who will not normally get them,” Ruiz said.

The Super Bowl Committee was impressed and awarded the grant to Espiritu.

New School for the Arts
Katy Cardenas, New School’s executive director, lists the names of graduates who have gained prominence in the arts, former students who have gone on to conservatories, act on Broadway, or teach at prestigious schools.

The Tempe school focuses on visual, performing and literary arts. The academic focus is college preparatory.

The school’s founder, Ron Caya, mentions one other student, a young man who was apologetic about getting a scholarship to a top-notch engineering school after so much training in the arts.

Caya told him he had no reason to apologize.

“We really pushed the academics as much as we did the arts,” he said.

Caya said he opened the school because he didn’t think kids who are talented in the arts were being challenged in district schools.
The school first opened in the extinct Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale, making it difficult to keep students contained who had ideas of wandering off. He also renovated an old Laundromat into a 100-seat theater.

But Caya thought he needed to do things differently, so the school joined a group of charter schools that pooled their money to borrow funds in the form of industrial development bonds in 2001. New School borrowed $4 million and moved into a former nightclub in Tempe, where it operates today.

Legacy Traditional Schools
William Gregory got his teaching degree in Utah, so when he moved to Arizona he couldn’t get a job in a district school without additional training.

Charter school teachers weren’t required to have a teaching certificate, so he took a job at one in 1999.

“Luckily I took that job and it helped me understand the importance of charter schools and what they’re doing,” Gregory said.

He met up with Aaron Hale, a CPA with an MBA and started talking about what they wanted in a school.

“We realized we had a perfect partnership in the business side as well the academic side,” Gregory said.

Although the trail had been blazed for charters by the time the two men got into the game in 2006, they were met with some of the same roadblocks as the pioneers.

Their first school was in Maricopa, which had no charter schools, so they had to educate the public on what a charter school was.
“Down to the basics sometimes of even helping them understand that charter schools are free and they don’t have to pay tuition,” Gregory said.

They also had to contend with a local school district. For instance, they rented a gymnasium in an elementary school to hold meetings with parents of prospective students, but the district suddenly stopped renting to them. The district also wouldn’t lease a vacant campus to them.

“They said, ‘No we want to use it for storage,’” Hale said.

— Gary Grado

Charter Facts

Enabling legislation: HB2002
Signed into law: June 17, 1994
Original charters that opened in 1995: 67
Number of original charters that are still open: 32
Number of the original charters that are still open and are rated ‘A’ or ‘B’: 21
Number of charter schools in Arizona today: 602
Number of charter schools as a percentage of all public schools in Arizona: 30
Number of students in Arizona charter schools: 190,000
Number of students in charter schools as a percentage of all public-school students: 17