When “School Choice” Means that Schools Choose Their Students

In the 1990s, Arizona became one of the nation’s first adopters of charter schools. The vision was to give parents more academic choices for their children and to provide learning environments more tailored to students’ individual needs. In many cases, however, Arizona’s charter school program has had the opposite result: Charter schools are choosing students who fit their mold. Indeed, more than two decades after charter schools emerged in Arizona, admission policies and procedures at many of the state’s charter schools unlawfully exclude some students or create barriers to their enrollment. Many schools have been able to get away with exclusionary practices for years without accountability.
Though charter schools operate independently, they are part of Arizona’s public education system and use taxpayer funds. As such, they are required to “enroll all eligible pupils who submit a timely application” (A.R.S. § 15-184(A)). If more students apply than can be accommodated, schools can randomly select students through a lottery system (A.R.S. § 15-184(E)). Arizona charter schools are also forbidden from discriminating against students on the basis of “ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disabling condition, proficiency in the English language or athletic ability” (A.R.S. § 15-184(F)). But an analysis of Arizona charter schools’ enrollment materials shows many schools have policies and procedures that are clearly illegal or exclusionary. Specifically, out of the 471 Arizona charter schools that were analyzed, at least 262, or 56 percent, have policies that are clear violations of the law or that may discourage the enrollment of certain students.
There are currently 543 charter schools in Arizona (this total may vary slightly depending on factors such as whether a joint middle-high school is counted as one school or two). However, 72 schools do not make their enrollment materials available on the Internet and did not respond to requests for those public records, violating their obligations under Arizona’s public records law and making it impossible to analyze these schools on most or all enrollment metrics. The analysis focused on whether charter schools:
  • Discourage the enrollment of students who don’t have strong grades or test scores
  • Set an enrollment limit on students with special education needs or have questions in their enrollment documents that may suppress the enrollment of these students
  • Discourage or preclude the enrollment of students with disciplinary records
  • Have questions in their enrollment documents that may have a chilling effect on non-English speaking parents and students
  • Discourage or preclude immigrant students from enrolling by requiring them to provide Social Security numbers or other citizenship information
  • Require students and parents to complete pre-enrollment requirements, such as essays, interviews or school tours
  • Refuse to enroll students until their parents commit to volunteer at the school or donate money to the school
  • Require parents to pay impermissible fees that create barriers to enrollment
Some of these exclusionary policies violate state and/or federal laws. The fact that so many Arizona charter schools’ enrollment policies and procedures contain plain legal violations demonstrates a clear failure of accountability. The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools authorizes and governs the vast majority of charter schools. The agency is responsible for ensuring that charter schools follow all laws and abide by the terms of their charter contracts. It is concerning that they have missed these violations of the law, most of which are publicly posted on schools’ websites or written into other widely available documents like student handbooks.
Though similar issues may be occurring within district schools, the ACLU of Arizona chose to focus its research on charter schools after hearing from several parents whose children were denied enrollment or faced barriers to enrollment at charter schools across Arizona.

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