LIKE millions of other parents, Herberta Millett was unhappy with
the atmosphere and standards at her local public high school. "The
kids were swearing and teasing my daughter, pulling her hair," Mrs.
Millett says. "Her grades were starting to fall."
Millett decided to enroll her daughter in the Heritage Academy, a
small school with a back-to-basics curriculum and strict codes of
Although Heritage is public and nonsectarian, it closely reflects
the traditional values of Millett and others in the
Mormon-dominated community of Mesa, Ariz. Millett said her daughter
came home after the first day of school and told her, "'Oh mother,
it's so wonderful not to hear cussing and swearing."'
Heritage Academy is emblematic of an innovative - and controversial
- reform movement in American education: charter schools. Set up to
be free of regulations and experiment with new teaching methods,
hundreds of charter schools have now sprung up in 19 states
Arizona, with some of the least-restrictive education laws in the
nation, is providing one of the clearest views of where the
movement is headed - and the problems that can crop up.
In Arizona, the controversy lies not with the concept of charter
schools but with the minimal requirements placed on them. Charter
schools must meet minimum health, safety, and academic standards;
not discriminate against applicants and not charge tuition; and
avoid religious instruction. Arizona doesn't require charter-school
teachers to be certified.
Since the charter-schools movement began in Minnesota in 1991, many
educators have hailed it as a promising way to improve public
education in America.
Charter schools offer parents choice in the kind of education their
children receive, and they encourage more "ownership" of the school
among teachers, students, and parents. But it remains to be seen
what kind of lasting effect charter schools will have on the
broader public education system. As one teacher says, "We don't
want to reinvent the wheel."
Educators are especially interested in what's happening in Arizona
because charter schools here are among the nation's least
restricted. Anyone - teachers, parents, businesses, community
groups, even religious organizations - can charter a school here.
Arizona also allows applicants to obtain charters from two
statewide boards as well as from local school districts, which
makes it easier to charter a school here than elsewhere. Although
Arizona's law allowing charter schools was passed just last year,
the state has about 50 opening this fall, second only to
California, which has about 100.
Freedom to teach
Roughly half of Arizona's charter schools were formerly private or
community-based schools. The rest are new. Many of them are the
realization of teachers' lifelong dreams to run their own shops. …