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NCLB Outrages

Left Behind, Indeed

Ohanian Comment: I've avoided the Arizona story for several days because I'm not sure I understand it. Why would for-profit schools expect taxpayer funds?

I still don't understand it but I'm posting this rant anyway.

"The federal government will not micromanage how schools are run. We believe strongly the best path to education reform is to trust the local people."

- President Bush, Jan. 8, 2002, upon signing the No Child Left Behind Act

Somebody forgot to inform the federal bureaucracy that local people are to be trusted to educate their own children.

Somebody forgot to tell the feds that the idea behind education reform is not that it should conform to hidebound federal definitions - such as, say, what constitutes a "public school" - but rather to expand options for students and, so, their horizons.

For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of education they provide, Arizona charter schools are catching the raw end of the horsewhip from the feds. They have dared to be too innovative.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education informed its counterparts in Arizona that charter schools in this state that are designated as "for-profit" will no longer qualify for federal funding for special-needs students.

Of course, those schools still will be required to provide the expensive services for special-needs kids, many of whom suffer from learning disabilities. They just will not receive the money to do so.

The federal ruling, scheduled to take effect on July 1, will sap $3.6 million from 54 Arizona charter schools that enroll more than 12,000 students.

In response, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, along with 11 of the for-profit charters, is suing the Department of Education and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to recover the funds necessary to educate the hundreds of Arizona kids who qualify for them.

At issue is a definition of what qualifies as a "public school."

Generally, nobody disputes that charters are in fact public schools. They operate with taxpayer funding and they abide by the same legal obligations as traditional schools.

But for reasons that will be revealed as thoroughly, embarrassingly illogical below, the Department of Education has decided that the judgment of yet another bureaucracy - the department's Office of Inspector General - should determine what schools actually qualify as "public."

For-profit charters, according to the OIG, are . . . well, something else. As a result, then, the Department of Education has ruled that for-profits don't qualify for either No Child Left Behind funding for disadvantaged children, or for money provided for children who qualify under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

One for-profit charter alone - the Leona Group Arizona, which operates 18 charter schools serving 7,000 students - stands to lose almost $2.5 million. That's $2.5 million that will not go where it is intended, to further the education of at-risk kids.

Is this because for-profit charters are failing their students? Well, no. The Department of Education has explicitly acknowledged that its refusal to fund for-profits has nothing to do with quality of education. It is entirely because for-profits in Arizona fail to conform to a federal definition of a public school.

This judgment by the Department of Education is more mind-bending than most people realize.

The Arizona Legislature - one of those local institutions the feds had vowed not to micromanage, remember? - makes no distinction between for-profit and non-profit charter schools.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has issued a ruling that there is no discriminatory distinction between the two.

But here is the kicker: The U.S. Department of Education itself rejected its inspector general's contention (in a November 2003 audit report) that for-profit charters are not public schools.

In a letter to Arizona schools superintendent Tom Horne, the Department of Education said: "(W)e have determined that (Arizona charter schools) are public schools, irrespective of whether they are non-profit or for-profit."

But now, that all has changed. Somehow. For some reason.

In classic bureaucratic fashion, the Department of Education proposes a resolution to the question that is at once utterly impractical and thoroughly meaningless.

For-profits, it suggests, should convert their status to non-profit and the owners should turn their charters over to non-profit boards.

Tell that to Syd Hoffman, who put up her own house as collateral 12 years ago to open her Bright Beginnings charter school.

But even if for-profits do convert to non-profits, the Department of Education has declared - in vague bureaucratese -- that they may not get the special-needs funding anyway.

Perhaps there is a more reasonable solution. How about this one?

Quit micromanaging and just send the "for-profit" charter schools the money they need to educate all of their students.

— Steve Benson
Arizona Republic


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