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12:47 AM Thu, Jan. 17th

Letter | ACLU’s attack on charter schools doesn’t agree with what families want

Kingman Academy of Learning Middle School was included in an enrollment study by the ACLU. KAOL and the Arizona Charter Schools Association were not impressed by the ACLU’s efforts.

Photo by Shawn Byrne.

Kingman Academy of Learning Middle School was included in an enrollment study by the ACLU. KAOL and the Arizona Charter Schools Association were not impressed by the ACLU’s efforts.

The ACLU is worried about public schools with “exclusionary” enrollment policies? That’s good to know.

Because for all but the last 20 years of our state’s existence, where you went to school depended on where you lived. Affluent families could afford to buy homes in expensive neighborhoods with high-quality schools. As for everyone else, we were at the mercy of our local district school. Students stuck in failing schools had no escape. Talk about enrollment suppression and discrimination.

Thankfully, this injustice was significantly curtailed in Arizona over the last two decades with the adoption of open enrollment policies and advent of charter schools. These were hard-fought wins, achieved over the staunch opposition of the education establishment – namely the teacher’s union and school districts.

Where has the ACLU been? Not with Arizona families fighting for access to better schools.

So, please excuse my cynicism at the ACLU’s newfound concern with school enrollment policies (“ACLU Blisters the Arizona Charter School System”). The organization recently issued a report that accused more than half of all Arizona charter schools of having enrollment policies that “discourage the enrollment of certain students.”

I would never excuse actions that are a clear violation of the law, but the overwhelming majority of practices singled-out by the ACLU are neither illegal nor anything but commonplace among both public charter and district schools. A few examples of what the ACLU dinged charters for include:

• Asking parents of a prospective student for the child’s birth certificate to document his or her age and identity.

• Inquiring if a new student has an Individual Education Plan (as special education students do). The ACLU says the question alone discourages enrollment – never mind that schools are required by law to establish if a student has an IEP in order to ensure there is no gap in special education services upon starting class.

• Requesting prior academic records. This is necessary to assess the student’s proficiency and determine what classes are appropriate after enrollment.

If it weren’t already clear the ACLU is on a witch-hunt, keep in mind the organization limited its review of school enrollment policies to strictly charters. That’s right – the ACLU ignored the practices of district schools that enroll approximately 85 percent of all Arizona students. The oversight is probably no accident, as a cursory online review shows district schools from Glendale to Prescott and Paradise Valley to Yuma require many of the same documents upon enrollment that the ACLU finds so objectionable.

The fact is, Arizona charter schools serve a student population that is racially and socioeconomically diverse and growing more diverse with time. The student body for charters is “majority-minority” (45 percent White; 55 percent non-White), and enrollment of students with special education needs is within a few percentage points of districts.

Enrollment in Arizona charters is booming – up more than 40,000 students, or 28 percent, since 2012-13 alone. Statewide district enrollment is down 1 percent during that same time period.

Contrary to the misplaced assertions of the ACLU, this kind of student growth is only possible because Arizona charters have thrown their doors open to all students and families. Charters are giving families what they want. That includes high achievement, as charter students of every racial and ethnic group have outperformed the state average for each of the past three years.

That’s the kind of news that may not earn the ACLU kudos among its liberal friends, but it’s the truth. And it’s what matters most to Arizona parents making decisions about where to send their kids to school.

Eileen Sigmund is the President and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.