The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes on a Different Meaning If Your Kid Has a Disability

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See also: Up the Down Staircase: A New Times writer tells one family's unique story about life with Down Syndrome, and then shares her own

"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.

Then he changed the subject again.

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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.