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Danehy: How Do Arizona’s Charter Schools Get Away With Swindling Students and Fleecing Taxpayers?

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There’s this kid who goes to a charter school. Nice kid, not-so-nice charter school. Before we continue with this particular story, I should make it clear that I am not a fan of charter schools, in general, nor this one, in particular.

It's been 25 years since failing governor Fife Symington and a vengeful Legislature foisted upon us a system that was nothing more than a screw-you to public-school teachers and one big, giant (unregulated) loophole through which scammers and scammer/legislators have siphoned off hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars with little or nothing to show for it.

Do you know how many charter schools have come and gone over the past 25 years? Don't feel bad; the State of Arizona doesn't know, either. Do you know how many hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been lost to con men and thieves? For that matter, how much of your money has ended up in the pockets of legislators who have used laws they passed to enrich themselves and then used bills they have refused to pass to prevent any oversight of the crooked operation? Nope, we don't know that, either.

What bothers me the most is that they continue to trot out the same two or three shining examples while ignoring the fact that, overall, an entire generation of Arizona's young people have been ill-served by this "experiment." Are kids from two-parent families who live in gated communities going to do well on standardized tests at a school that hand-picks its students and turns away all kids with special needs? They'd better. The only real news would be if they didn't do well.

BASIS Oro Valley is probably going to have higher test scores than a public school in another part of town. But the kids at BASIS aren't going to do better than the kids at nearby Ironwood Ridge (public) High School. (Plus, the kids at Ironwood Ridge get to play all different kinds of sports and be in the marching band and drama productions.) Likewise, kids at a westside charter school aren't going to do better than kids at a westside public school and, if they opened a charter school in the foothills, despite the inherent advantages that come with choosing a student body, those kids wouldn't out-perform the kids at Catalina Foothills High.

There are certainly some hard-working teachers and some good students at some of Arizona's charter schools, but the intentional debasement of the public-school system for petty political (and obviously greedy) purposes could have and should have been avoided. Arizona's charter schools are closing in record numbers and the financial scandals are spreading. I especially like the ill-named American Leadership Academy in Gilbert, which is banned from participating in high-school playoffs due to illegal recruiting. The school's founder recently cashed out to the tune of tens of millions of dollars (in taxpayer money), leaving the charter school's new owners with debts that won't be paid off until 2052, if ever.

My sainted Italian mother, may she rest in peace, used to look at me and say "Tu sei diverso!" That meant "You're different," and it never sounded like a compliment. Referring to my modest abilities in the areas of math and science, she told me, "You have a gift from God and you have to share it." If she was mentioning God, I knew she was dead serious, so I took it to heart.

Accordingly, I have been tutoring people my entire life. And I have never taken a penny for it, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife. (Some of her fellow teachers supplement their meager incomes by tutoring at night and on weekends.) I will help anybody who asks as long as they are sincere in their desire to learn and they show up ready to work.

So, this kid asked for help and I said sure. I asked what the last math class he had taken was. (I'll use "he" but it could be a she). He said he had received a "B" in Pre-Calc. I decided to start with a review of Algebra II stuff before moving on. He couldn't do any of it, so we moved further back. He couldn't do Algebra I stuff; in fact, he struggled with all but the most basic mathematical operations.

I sensed his embarrassment and told him that we would find a good place from which to start and move on from there. And so we have. But I was heated. I called his school to find out how he could have passed Pre-Calc when his math skills are at an elementary school level. They said (quite correctly) that his records are private. I asked if I could contact his math teacher so we could set up a program to help the kid. I was told that such contact would be "inappropriate."

The math here is painfully simple. Charter schools get nearly $7,000 per student from the State of Arizona (which is more than real public schools get per student). If students start getting failing grades and they go elsewhere, the school's owners might have to put off buying that beach condo.

How any more struggling kids like him are out there, human dollar signs being run through the diploma mill? I don't know...and neither does the State of Arizona.

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