Yes, the AZ Republic called Senator Sylvia Allen “one of the best-known lightning rods in the AZ Legislature.” Her stated belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and her suggestion that church attendance be mandated as a way to “get back to a moral rebirth in this country” are just two of the reasons for her notoriety. I was shocked when I heard of her appointment as Chair of the Senate Education Committee, but it shouldn’t have surprised me.
After all, I doubt her religious fervency is the reason AZ Senate President Biggs selected Allen to be the person who will control what education proposals make it out of the AZ Senate. Rather, I suspect it is her support of charter schools like the George Washington Academy she helped found in Snowflake. Listed as the “Administrative Program Manager” on their “GWA Teachers and Staff” page, Senator Allen’s employment with this school makes me wary of her ability to be impartial when it comes to legislation that favors charter schools over traditional district (public) schools. Please know that I am not a charter “hater.” I recognize there are charter schools that fill critical needs. What I am, is realistic about the impact the diversion of tax payer dollars to privately managed charter and private schools is having on our traditional school districts and their students. Make no mistake; this is a zero sum game. When charter schools win, traditional district schools, often the hub of small communities, lose.
Senator Allen’s George Washington Academy may be located in the community of Snowflake, but it is managed by Education Management Organization (EMO) EdKey Inc., a for-profit management company that operates 18 schools in Arizona. Although its schools are technically “public” there are numerous differences between them (and all charters) and your average community district schools. For starters, the requirements for accountability and transparency are very different. Traditional district schools have locally elected governing board members that are accountable to the public. Not so with charter schools. In looking at the George Washington Academy website, they had no information about the school board on their school board page, and under school board agendas, only a statement that says: “Sorry, but that directory is empty.” I had to go to the corporate website (sequoiaschools.org) to see the names of their six governing board members, but there was no access to board agendas or minutes.
Another difference between traditional district schools and charters is the students they serve. Although both are required by law to take all students as long as they have existing capacity, charters often manage to be more “discriminating” in filling their student rosters. As the 2015-2016 school year is the first for the George Washington Academy, there were no AzMERIT scores or demographic information for the school. I did review the data for an EdKey, Inc. school operating under the same charter, the Pathfinder Academy. I discovered their students performed relatively well (this first year was tough on all schools) on the AzMERIT test with 57 percent of their students passing on the English score and 54 percent on Math. It is important to note though, that the school evidently is very homogenous, reporting no (or negligible) non-white students. They also had no (or negligible) homeless students, English language learners, or students with disabilities. I am a school board member of a small rural school where 24 percent of our students are classified as special needs. These students take the same AzMERIT test as all the other students. As you can imagine, this makes a difference. As does working with students who may be dealing with additional challenges (such as poverty) outside the classroom.
This isn’t just about academic achievement it is also about cold, hard cash. The current reality is that with open enrollment and school choice, all schools must compete for students and the funding that comes with them. This idea works great for students when schools are focused on improving so they can better attract students. It doesn’t work so well when the motive is profit-oriented. EMOs are in the business of making money and that means operating efficiently and profitably, but they may not always have all the students’ best interests in mind. That’s why attrition rates in charters are often high after the annual daily attendance records are turned into the state on the 100th day of the school year. After the 100th day, less than “ideal” students are often “encouraged” back to the traditional district school. The charter school keeps that year’s funding for the student and the district school must educate that child without any associated funding. And although EMOs may be focused on operating efficiently, administrative costs are often double those of Arizona’s traditional public schools, which have the lowest administrative costs in the nation.
I believe charter schools should supplement public schools not supplant them. The original intent of charter schools as envisioned by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (yes a union guy), was a public school where teachers could experiment with “fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” That was until the corporate reform movement recognized the money (around $700 billion) to be made in the K-12 education market.
Yet, despite all the efforts of reformers and the fact Arizona has led the Nation in charter school development, a full 85 percent of Arizona students still attend traditional district schools. This is where our focus and that of those who represent us should be. In the first session of the 52nd Legislature, Senator Allen voted in accord with the Arizona School Boards Association’s position on only two of nine bills. That is right in line with her party, but it doesn’t bode well for her support of Arizona’s traditional public school children. Still, I must admit that I liked her words to the Arizona Republic in response to her appointment as the Senate Education Committee Chair: “I want to highlight the incredible teachers who are the reason for our children’s success. I also want to focus on parents’ responsibility in their children’s education. They are a critical part of their children’s success. We need to encourage that involvement.” I agree entirely with both of those sentiments and hope she genuinely believes them and acts accordingly as the Senate Education Committee Chair.
Words won’t though, raise Arizona’s academic achievement above the bottom three or four. Senator Allen appears to be predisposed to charter schools, her voting record has not been supportive of traditional public education, she has extreme religious views and, she only has a high school diploma. Look, I am not criticizing her for not going to college, she’s obviously done well in spite of that. But, with that in mind, is she the right person to exercise this much control over what happens with education in our state? After all, there are a multitude of experiences higher education offers and in the absence of these experiences, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, and I hope Senator Farley is correct in his assessment that he believes Allen will “do a pretty good job.” Unfortunately, I believe our AZ students need more than “pretty good”, I think they need the very best we can bring. I have my doubts that Senator Allen is up to the job, but time will tell and I’ll be watching.