A Different School of Thought

The state's unabashed enthusiasm for charter schools stops at the borders of Indian reservations

Lisa Graham Keegan, the state's superintendent of public instruction, insists the state's decision to cut off state money to the tribal schools was based purely on fairness. Still, she acknowledges that the issue is politically charged because it involves Indian children. "It's difficult to discuss this without sounding like you're for or against Indian students," she says.

Tribal school officials say non-charter public schools on the reservation--as well as on military bases--receive M&O money from the federal government. For them, it's called "impact money" and it's intended to make up for the schools' inability to raise local property taxes on the government-owned land.

Sorensen, the director of the Little Singer tribal charter school on the Navajo reservation, says his school competes with public reservation schools that receive both state M&O dollars and federal impact money. Yet the Legislature hasn't moved to take away those state funds.

"If we're going to provide competition, give us a level playing field with public schools which receive impact aid," he says.

Sorensen and others point out that the federal money the tribal charter schools receive--called ISEP funds--is at about the same level as impact money. Why should the state object to tribal charter schools receiving state and ISEP funds when Arizona doesn't object to reservation public schools receiving state and impact money?

Lisa Graham Keegan, however, says the problem is that federal money going to the tribal charter schools, the ISEP funds, is calculated on a per-pupil basis and is considered to be tuition funds. The state charter-schools money also is considered to be tuition funds, she says, regardless of how tribes actually spend the money. Charter schools off the reservation get only one source of tuition money from taxpayers, and are at a disadvantage to tribal schools that get double-funded, she says.

For state officials, the controversy is a simple one. Cutting off the tribal schools is a way to "level the playing field" between all charter schools.

What that argument ignores, however, is the deeply ideological nature of the charter-school program itself. State officials seem to forget the heady rhetoric that accompanied charter schools at their birth. And it's hard to blame the tribes for feeling that promises were broken by a state that continues to advertise itself as the country's crucible for radical educational reform.

Charter schools were forged after a decadelong debate about the crisis in America's public schools--a crisis that educators, politicians and the public agreed was demonstrated in falling test scores, high dropout rates and school violence.

Liberal pundits pointed to growing class size, low teacher salaries and crumbling infrastructure, and called for increased spending. Conservatives said that would perpetuate an educational monopoly controlled by teachers' unions peddling a soft-headed, permissive social contract under the politically correct name of "multiculturalism."

Conservatives, meanwhile, called for improving the nation's public schools by increasing their incentive. They urged government subsidizing of educational choice in the form of vouchers that parents could use to send their children to private schools. Forced to compete, the public schools would learn to do more with less money or perish. Liberals said that the public-school system would collapse, replaced by private institutions heavy on religious indoctrination that would further segregate students by economic class and ethnicity.

In that atmosphere, a number of states began experimenting with various tenets in the conservative program. A limited voucher system began in Milwaukee in 1990, and the nation's first charter school, an experiment related to vouchers, opened its doors in Minnesota in 1991.

In 1994, urged on by free-market advocates at the Goldwater Institute, conservative legislators pushed for voucher legislation. Lisa Graham Keegan, newly elected as the state's top educator, supported vouchers. So did then-governor J. Fife Symington III.

The legislation didn't pass. But as a sort of consolation prize, the charter-schools law did.

The law was the least restrictive charter-school measure in the country. Nearly anyone with a decent credit history and a detailed business plan could open a public school.

Today, there are about 250 charter campuses with another 50 schools preparing to open in the upcoming school year, according to Pike, the charter-schools board president. About a third of all U.S. charter schools are in Arizona; that's twice as many as in California, the state with the second highest number of charter schools.

And whether individual charter schools serve mostly white parents interested in back-to-basics education, minority parents looking for inner-city alternatives to district schools or families seeking unique arts- or science-based curricula, all of Arizona's charter schools are immersed in the ideological tenets of a conservative movement:

* Charter schools must show that they can do more with less. In the beginning, administrators weren't thrilled about this. A lack of start-up money made it very difficult to get some schools off the ground, and there were calls for the Legislature to bail out schools that had quickly found themselves in debt trouble. Citing the political nature of the charter-school movement, legislators said they would go against the experiment to send them more cash. One school was shut down when its administrator was found to have fudged enrollment figures to get more money from the state. Others managed to get by. Pike estimates that charter schools can educate a child with about 85 percent of the funds of a public district school.

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