Education

Failing Charter Schools: Victims of Unfair Regulation or Blights on Public Education?

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In Arizona, charter schools have the right to bring closure proceedings before an administrative hearing office for an evidentiary hearing. Jefferson Academy took that option.

Administrative Law Judge Tammy Eigenheer heard testimony from school and state officials over the course of three days in March and one day in May.

Several teachers, parents, and students testified on behalf of the school, asking and begging for it to remain open.

The State Board for Charter Schools, which is represented by the Attorney General's Office in such proceedings, presented evidence of the school's failure to meet both state standards and its own academic performance framework.

The board -- which bears the burden of proof in these hearings -- argued that Jefferson Academy had failed to prove it could meet acceptable levels on three of the board's four assessment criteria. Those criteria include the state's letter grading system, proof of student growth over time, and student academic proficiency, which looks at the number of students passing the AIMS. The board's fourth criterion for academic performance -- a school's graduation rate -- could not be assessed using the materials provided by the school, the board argued.

The board presented evidence of Jefferson's low test scores and argued that beyond the numbers, the school had failed to show that it was aligning its curriculum and lesson plans to state standards, that it was properly assessing students to see whether they were meeting those requirements, or that it had conducted formal teacher evaluations and professional development.

On July 8, two months after the final day of testimony, Judge Eigenheer issued a written decision.

Though she noted that the school was supported by many parents, students, and staff, and though she noted that the school was attempting to meet the particular needs of students in the Show Low community, Eigenheer also pointed out that schools are required by law to address such needs while meeting state and board expectations.

"The administrative law judge has no doubt that the school has helped many students," Eigenheer wrote, "but the students' performance must be measured against other similarly situated students' performance across the state of Arizona. And while the school is to be commended for the actions recently taken to address its low performance, it appears to be a case of 'too little, too late.'"

With that, she found that "revocation was the appropriate sanction" and agreed with the board's decision to shut down Jefferson Academy.

"This is our frustration," Janice Stewart says. "We're not here playing school. I've been doing this for 27 years. This has been my life. I'm not up here to do any kids any harm. We're here because these kids need us."

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Monica Alonzo and Ashley Cusick