ACLU investigates the enrollment procedures for Arizona charter schools

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The Arizona branch of the ACLU have discovered through their Schools Choosing Students reports that charter schools have policies in place that allow them to choose which students they want to serve.

Typically, it’s up to the families to decide where they want their children to attend school. Public charter schools in the state has been altering that framework so they decide who is and isn’t allowed to enroll in their school.

“The report looked at 471 different charter schools and their enrollment practices and policies,” Policy Director for the ACLU Arizona Chapter Will Gaona says. “What we found is that at least 56% of those charter schools have practices that are either clear violations of law or that discourage certain populations of students from enrolling in their school.”

For one example, there are charter schools that limit the number of special education kids they are willing to enroll. Gaona shares the case of a woman whose sons were in the process of enrolling at a charter school in Phoenix, until the school told her that they wouldn’t be allowed because it “had already filled all the special education slots.”

“Through our investigation, we found that wasn’t an isolated practice,” Gaona says. “There are a number of schools that in clear violation of state and federal law placed caps on the number of special education students they were willing to serve.”

The one disciplinary basis where a school can refuse to enroll a student is if the child had been expelled from a previous school. However, there are charters that have been adding words to that rule in their own policies.

“In at least 59 charter schools, their enrollment policies either strictly prohibited students with past suspensions from enrolling or implied that their past suspensions can prevent them from enrolling,” Gaona says.

The State Charter Board oversees all charter schools in Arizona. Once this report was released, they saw more parents sitting in on their meetings to demand that they provide the oversight that they are supposed to.

There’s a new bill on the table that will allow a corporation or business entity to make a donation to a charter and then children of the employees from the business will receive an enrollment preference. The enrollment preference can make up nearly half of the student body for some charter schools.

“I realize school choice is a bit of a contentious issue in Arizona, but I like to think that we can all agree that a student’s ability to attend a public charter school shouldn’t depend on connections of the student’s parents,” Gaona says.

TED SIMONS: A RECENT REPORT BY THE ARIZONA CHAPTER OF THE ACLU QUESTIONS ENROLLMENT PROCEDURES AT ARIZONA CHARTER SCHOOLS AND NOW THE STATE LEGISLATURE IS WORKING ON A BILL THAT WOULD ALLOW CHARTERS TO GIVE ADDITIONAL PREFERENCE TO CERTAIN STUDENTS. HERE TO TALK ABOUT ALL THIS IS WILL GAONA HE IS POLICY DIRECTOR FOR THE ARIZONA CHAPTER OF THE ACLU IT'S GOOD TO HAVE YOU HERE AND JOINING US.

Will Gaona: Absolutely

TED SIMONS: This report is called schools choosing students, why that title?

Will Gaona: I think the school of choice framework in Arizona is often designed for families to choose the schools which their children attend, but in our investigation of enrollment practices and charter schools throughout Arizona we found this far too often schools have policies that enable them to choose the students they want to serve

TED SIMONS: You found over 50% of charters discourage students some way shape or form to enroll.

Will Gaona: The report looked at 471 enrollment and policies and practices and what we found is at least 56% of charter schools have clear violations of law or discourage certain populations of students from enrolling in the school.

TED SIMONS: What are some practices?

Will Gaona: Students with disabilities for example we worked with a mom named Jackie who through the lottery process her sons were able to enroll in a charter school here in Phoenix but when she tried to enroll them she was told by the charter school that they couldn't enroll actually because they had special education needs and the charter filled out the special education slots. Through our investigation we found that was not an isolated practice and a number of schools in clear violation of state and Federal law placed caps on the NUMBER OF special education students they were willing to serve.

TED SIMONS: AND that is a violation of law correct.

Will Gaona: It violates state and Federal law

TED SIMONS: THERE WERE Also students who had been suspended at other schools, you are not supposed to ask about what, what was the problem there?

Will Gaona: THERE IS ONLY One discipline basis through which a school can deny enrollment to a potential student and that is if they are expelled from another school but 59 charter schools their enrollment policy either strictly prohibited students with past expencions or prohibit them from enrolling.

TED SIMONS: AND ANOTHER THING I THINK YOU FOUND THAT A NUMBER Essays or interviews without telling the parents that the essays and interviews are required what is that all about?

Will Gaona:A number of schools that either had essays or interviews or would place students on some type of probation status even if they very going to be enrolled that required them to meet certain academic benchmarks IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN THEIR enrollment and never communicated to parents it was not about the enrollment places but placement in classes and things like that so for some parents it was intimidating.

TED SIMONS: You said the practices are illegal, what kind of state oversight is involved here?

Will Gaona:In Arizona we have the state charter board which oversees all charter schools and you know after our report came out there was a large amount of parents that started showing up at charter board meetings demanding they provide real oversight over these schools based on the POLICIES and practices and January and February there were huge turnout in meetings and March after parents showed an interest the charter board decided not to hold the regularly scheduled meeting and apparently had no items it needed to consider.

TED SIMONS: The practices you found compare those to traditional district schools what is going on there same kind of things happening?

Will Gaona:It's a bit unclear and part of the reason we decided to focus on charter schools because ACLU we have complaints from parents WHO WERE EXPERIENCING THIS IN CHARTER SCHOOL and we did back in 2011 analyze policies in I think about 100 different districts throughout Arizona and found certain barriers for immigrant families enrolling their students.

TED SIMONS: All right so the legislature is looking at a bill that would do what expand options for schools as opposed to students?

Will Gaona:Yeah, so it's a pretty troubling bill and the main feature of it allows a corporation or other business entity to make a substantial donation to a charter school and in exchange for the donation the children and employees of that business receive an enrollment preference in that charter school. That enrollment preference can be up to 50% of that school's student body. You know I realize that school of choice is a bit of a contentious issue in Arizona but I like to think we can all agree that a student’s ability to attend a public charter school should not depend on the corporate connections of the students’ parents.

TED SIMONS: Is that a thing that could lead to a Court case?

Will Gaona: You know potentially I don't think we analyzed it from a legal perspective yet but a matter of policy it's bad to allow charter schools to continue to select the students that they want to serve. I mean school of choice is about families choosing schools not the other way around.

TED SIMONS: Charter schools said the whole investigation of the ACLU is misleading and broad brush accusations respond please.

Will Gaona: I THINK THIS IS DISSAPOINTING TO HEAR. This report gave them a real opportunity to analyze some issues that exist in a number of charter schools like I said 56% of those we analyze had some type of issue and clearly the charter board is not providing this type of oversight. so when someone brings the issues forward I think the charter schools should respond with you know improvement and better services for their students instead of being so defensive.

TED SIMONS: IT SOUNDS LIKE CHARTERS ARE SAYING THEY ARE SERVING THEIR STUDENTS WELL. They say they are doing a good job went ENrollment because it's up 28% in the past five years and they couldn't have that if they were discriminating.

Will Gaona: Well you could have increased enrollment, it's just a matter of who is getting enrolled. Look at some high performing charters that exist in Arizona , BASIS for example the population of students in public schools in Arizona is close to 50% Latino and the base schools it's 10% Latino students so it's not a question of are students enrolling but which students are enable to enroll.

TED SIMONS: So when the charter schools say ACLU has an anticharter agenda basically you are against charter schools you say.

Will Gaona:If we have school of choice that choice has to be meaningful and available for all students, we are able education equity and all students have the same educational opportunities and because of the policies RIGHT NOW I don't think they do.

TED SIMONS: Where do we go from here and where does the bill stand from here?

Will Gaona: The bill was introduced as a strike everything amendment which our legislature has been this session almost three months and saw the bill for the first time last week and rushing the bill through a process avoids public scrutiny. I think as more people become aware of this our legislature realizes it's a bad idea but I don't have a ton of confidence in that.

TED SIMONS: Good to have you here we appreciate it and Wednesday on Arizona Horizon the governor and legislative leaders could be at odds of arming school personnel to increase school safety and the assassination of Martin Luther king junior 50 years later, I'm Ted Simons thank you so much for joining us you have a great evening.

Will Gaona: Policy Director, ACLU Arizona Chapter

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