Lawsuit accuses AZ charter school of mixing religion with history


by Brian Washington

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Arizona educator Josh Buckley teaches government to seniors at Red Mountain High School in the Mesa Unified School District. This year, his students are getting a lesson ripped from the headlines of their local newspaper. It will focus on a current U.S. District Court case accusing a local charter school of ignoring religious liberty and the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“The separation of church and state is an idea that hits students again and again as we talk about freedom of religion,” said Buckley. “They’ll be able to see that kind of distinction and say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem right.’”

Heritage Academy, a Mesa-based charter school, considered a public school because it gets taxpayer dollars, stands accused of using controversial textbooks that mix religion with history lessons.

We have a strong record of charter schools doing what they want to do in Arizona,” said Buckley, who points out that charter schools are managed by for-profit companies and are not held to the same standards as tradition public schools. “So to find out that a charter school is skirting or outright breaking the rules isn’t totally surprising.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State launched a suit against Heritage earlier this month after it says it filed several complaints with the state agency overseeing charters—complaints it says went nowhere.

“As a matter of law, and as a matter of the constitutionally-required respect for the religious liberty of all Americans, no public school student should be so compelled to learn and practice the preferred faith of a school official,” states the lawsuit. “No parent should have their rights to determine the religious upbringing of their children so usurped.”

“If this happened in a neighborhood public school, a teacher could face disciplinary action up to and including losing their teaching certificate,” said Joe Thomas, a government teacher from Mesa and president of the Arizona Education Association, which represents thousands of educators throughout the state.

“In Arizona, however, charter schools are not required to hire certified teachers, and charter schools face little to no accountability or oversight even though they are funded by taxpayer dollars.”

Arizona educators Jonathan Parker (left) and Josh Buckley (right)

The charges against Heritage seem to fit with the overall plan of conservative, right-wing state lawmakers who want to drain public schools of vital funding to subsidize the cost of tuition at private and religious schools.

The state currently spends $6,314 per student for those attending charter schools compared to $5,198 for each public school student.

“For those parents who want their children to have a religious education, they are entitled to it,” said Jonathan Parker, who teaches AP high school history in Glendale. “But if it comes at a cost of syphoning public funds away from students who are entitled to a quality public education, that’s not right.”

“With this case, I think we’re seeing some ‘cafeteria constitutionalism’ where we pick and choose the parts of the constitution we intend to abide by as long as they are not inconvenient.”

However, educators are hopeful the courts will set things straight and rule in favor of the Constitution and parents’ rights to determine a child’s religious upbringing.

“My hope is this will be seen as a violation of the first amendment,” said Buckley. “Religion is a personal matter that should be decided within a family and not left up to a publicly-funded school.”

Reader Comments

  1. Jean addressed funding, oversight, management ok but bottom line You do receive public funds so address the issue of religious education in the text books and the separation of church and state. If you want to espouse your religious beliefs open a private school supported with private funds.

  2. I would further like to correct the record about Per Pupil Funding for the state in regard to Arizona Charter schools. This article states that Charter students are funded at approximately 1000. Dollars more per year. The reason this is necessary is due to the fact that Charter don’t receive seperate monies for transportation, facilities, and vocational education as districts do. Districts have different “pots” of funding to draw from to pay for their buses, buildings, and shops. We DO NOT. We survive on only the Per Pupil Funding.

  3. I am confused. As the administrator of an Arizona Charter school I would like to correct the record. Not all Arizona Charter schools are “for profit”, as a matter of fact, the “investigative journalist” who wrote this piece may want to double check Arizona Charter Law due to the fact I think it was passed that AZ could no longer even have “for profit” charter schools. I happen to operate a Non-profit, 501C3 Charter School. We actually have DOUBLE the oversight of traditional schools due to the fact that we have to comply with AZ State Board for Charter Schools, PLUS The Arizona Department of Education, besides having annual INDEPENDENT audits of financials, student records, enrollment and attendance, sped laws, etc. which is turned over to The State Board of Charter Schools. No district I know has such requirements or oversight. The “certified vs. Highly Qualified” was to ensure that Highly Qualified (as per The Federal Government), experts in their field, would not be excluded from the classroom due to the fact that they hadn’t paid the hundreds of dollars to the state for certification, but rather had a class one one finger print clearance card, a college degree in their subject area, or for vocational teachers were “experts in their field”. There are qualifications for that too. This article is very misleading and actually damaging to the charter movement which is actually Arizona’s No Child Left Behind.

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