Longform

The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes New Meaning If Your Child Has a Disability

Two decades ago, Arizona stepped into the business of charter schools — publicly funded and independently operated schools given a kind of autonomy never before seen in public education in America.

Traditional school districts have layers of administrators that may dictate changes, whereas a charter operator easily can pivot on everything from lesson plans to school policies. Charter school teachers don't need state certification, and they're exempt from state laws that penalize other public school teachers for being "ineffective." District schools are built where students live, while charters can open where the students they want to serve live.

Arizona's law — one of the most liberal in the country — was passed in 1994 and at the time led to more charter schools here than in the rest of the country combined. Today, the state still has one of the highest numbers of charter schools: 605 in the 2013-14 school year (only California, Texas, and Florida have more).

Of those, 87 just opened their doors in the fall of 2013 — placing Arizona at the top of the list of states with the most new charter schools, according to statistics from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Arizona enrolls more than a million students in public schools, and about 184,400 of those attended a charter school in the 2013-14 school year. Charter school leaders believe that if trends in charter school enrollment continue, specialty schools could double their student population by 2020.

Along with a reputation for its quantity of charter schools, the state also carries the distinction of being home to some of the highest-quality institutions. Last month, U.S. News and World Report once again included two Arizona charters on its list of the five best high schools in the nation: BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Tucson North.

BASIS makes headlines (with good cause), but the rest of the story isn't always as pretty, or as well known. In this series, New Times explore the philosophies, policies, and practices that hold back Arizona's charter schools. — Monica Alonzo

This week: Special education

I spotted Jay Heiler from across a crowded Pei Wei on a hot summer night in 2013. It had been years since I'd seen him last, but Heiler hadn't changed a bit, a head or two taller than the other patrons, a boyish wave in his carefully combed blond hair.

I didn't catch his eye, but I knew he'd come over to say hello, because Jay Heiler is one of the most unfailingly polite people I've ever met. Twenty years ago, he was chief of staff to then-Governor J. Fife Symington, and my colleagues and I regularly beat them both up in the pages of New Times. Still, Heiler always returned my calls.

"Amy Silverman?"

I looked up from my chicken and broccoli and smiled.

"Jay Heiler?"

"And this must be Annabelle," he said, remembering the name of my older daughter, almost 12 at the time.

"No, Jay," I said, motioning to the 10-year-old across the table. "This is Sophie."

He took a closer look and for a split second, I thought Heiler might bolt from the table; maybe he'd forgotten that my younger child has Down syndrome. He recovered just as quickly and changed the subject, mentioning that he saw my "Pop" at a golf tournament, wanting to know the gossip at the newspaper.

Business is going well for you, I observed. He beamed. Yes, he said, Great Hearts Academies, the charter school company he founded after leaving Symington, was doing well, expanding into Texas next.

In many ways, Jay Heiler is the godfather of Arizona's school choice movement. During his time with Symington, he tried unsuccessfully to legalize school vouchers, then championed legislation that ultimately made Arizona the second state in the nation with charter schools.

Now, Arizona has two different kinds of public schools — "charter" and the traditional "district." And to this day, Arizona's law still is considered one of the friendliest to charter operators. Heiler chairs the Arizona Association of Charter Schools. If anyone knows Arizona charter schools, it's Heiler. And that gave me an idea.

"Hey, Jay, I have a question for you," I said, looking over at Sophie, who was busy shoveling lo mein into her mouth.

In another year, I explained, Sophie will be done with elementary school, and I hope to find just the right fit for her for junior high. She'd been in a district school, but I was open to a charter. And I figured that if anyone would know of the perfect charter school for Sophie, it was Jay Heiler.

Have any suggestions? I asked.

Heiler nodded, not missing a beat. But he didn't mention any charter schools. Instead, he said, he'd heard there were some very good middle schools in the district where Sophie was already going to school.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.