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Charter schools should embrace criticism and become better

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Last month, the ACLU of Arizona released “Schools Choosing Students,” a report detailing the illegal or exclusionary enrollment policies at many of the state’s charter schools, which lead to students being denied equal access to a high-quality education. Every piece of information in the report is specific, sourced and designed to help families and schools.

I have children in two Phoenix charter schools, and the findings concerned me. Using this report, the Arizona Charter School Association could have been an ally to Arizona students. It could have looked at the numbers, read the stories and used the solutions to improve. It could have insisted that if a school accepts public funds, it must follow the law.

Jeannette Domask

Jeannette Domask

Instead of taking responsibility, however, the Arizona Charter Schools Association decided to ignore the facts, calling the report an “attack on charter schools.”

The report doesn’t attack charter schools. It defends students and parents, like me, across Arizona. The report’s goal is not to attack school choice; it means to ensure that more families have real choices.

The ACLU of Arizona looked at public information—including statements written into charter schools’ enrollment documents and handbooks—regarding academic and behavior requirements, special education and disability requirements, parental requirements and more.

The results were disturbing.

“Schools Choosing Students” showed that some charter schools are illegally capping the number of special needs children they accept. It showed that 59 charter schools illegally refuse to admit students with prior suspensions or imply that prior suspensions could affect their admission. It showed that 72 charter schools hid their policies and ignored public record requests altogether.

With its defensive response, the Arizona Charter Schools Association showed it doesn’t care.

That’s unfortunate for the children of Arizona. As charter supporters, we need to take responsibility for the flaws in our system and fix them. The solutions in “Schools Choosing Students” are meant to help charter organizations, schools, and families make sure that every Arizona student is offered the promise of school choice as required by law.

As charter supporters, we can be better. After a similar report came out in California, charter schools worked with the ACLU to bring their policies into compliance. California’s Legislature passed an accountability law to protect students and families. And when schools updated their policies, the ACLU made sure to celebrate their efforts.

Here’s what needs to happen in Arizona:

The Arizona Department of Education must clarify, promote and enforce charter schools’ legal obligations, especially those laws that enable oversight, such as public record and open meeting laws.

The Arizona Department of Education or the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, which oversees most charter schools, should create standard enrollment paperwork for charter schools that complies with state and federal laws and does not contain exclusionary or discriminatory language.

Parents should closely examine enrollment forms, handbooks and other materials that charter schools provide. If they identify illegal or exclusionary policies, they have a right to contact the school’s administration, charter network and, if necessary, file a complaint with the Charter Board.

While some Arizona charter schools may currently be violating statutes, marginalizing certain types of students, or hiding their policies from public scrutiny, many others are doing their best to follow the law and serve all families who choose to be there. A better way forward than what has been offered by the Arizona Charter School Association would be to acknowledge the problems identified in the ACLU report and then work hard for Arizona’s students to make sure those problems are eliminated.

— Jeannette Domask is a parent whose children attend charter schools in Phoenix: Great Hearts Archway North Phoenix and Great Hearts North Phoenix Prep.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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