Parents will find few states that offer families as many schooling options as Arizona. A longtime leader in the national school choice movement, Arizona has an education marketplace with a school for nearly any income, interest or situation.
And nowhere in the state do options abound like they do in the East Valley.
From Apache Junction to Mesa and Tempe, from Queen Creek to Gilbert and Chandler, the traditional neighborhood school is a popular mainstay. But there are also schools where your son or daughter can learn to sculpt or sing, focus on horses and equine science, or study aviation, to name a few specialties. And those are just a few of the public school options. Arizona’s tuition tax credit scholarships and empowerment savings accounts also make it possible for families to send their children to private schools that were unaffordable to them before.
The following definitions and resources can help you as you navigate Arizona’s K-12 market.
There are two general types of public schools: Charter schools and schools operated by districts. Charter schools and district schools are both tuition-free and regulated by the state Board of Education, but charter schools are privately operated and exempt from some regulations that districts are required to follow. For instance, charter school teachers are not required to be certified, although many are. School districts and charter schools both have governing boards, but district boards are elected by the community and charter boards are appointed by the charter operator.
Charter schools also have sponsoring boards, such as the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools or a school district, that monitor them and provide oversight. Most charter schools are sponsored by the state’s charter board.
The traditional neighborhood school remains the most popular type of public school in Arizona. School districts draw boundaries to determine which neighborhoods are served by each school. But under the state’s open-enrollment law, children can attend other schools within the district or in another district by applying to that school.
Many districts offer different types of schools as alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools. For example, district options may include campuses with International Baccalaureate programs, schools that focus on bioscience, back-to-basics elementary schools, or classrooms that use the Montessori method of instruction.
School districts also offer career and technical education programs, such as automotive or culinary arts, at their own campuses and by sending students interested in vocational careers to the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa. EVIT offers high school students in about a dozen districts a wide range of career and technical programs, from health care and radio broadcasting to cosmetology and firefighting. Students attend EVIT part-time, taking academic courses in their home school district.
Students in East Valley school districts are often at the top when it comes to statewide competitions, such as the Arizona Academic Decathlon or the Arizona Science & Engineering Fair, among others. And for years, schools in East Valley districts have dominated the upper levels of high school athletics.
To learn more, contact the district office in your community:
• Apache Junction Unified School District (superintendent Chad Wilson): (480) 982-1110 or www.ajusd.org
• Chandler Unified School District (superintendent Camille Casteel): (480) 812-7000 or ww2.chandler.k12.az.us
• East Valley Institute of Technology (superintendent Sally Downey): (480) 461-4000 or www.evit.com
• Gilbert Unified School District (interim superintendent Jack Keegan): (480) 497-3300 or www.gilbertschools.net
• Higley Unified School District (superintendent Denise Birdwell): (480) 279-7000 or www.husd.org
• J.O. Combs Unified School District (superintendent Gayle Blanchard): (480) 987-5300 or www.jocombs.org
• Kyrene Elementary School District (superintendent David K. Schauer): (480) 541-1000 or www.kyrene.org
• Mesa Unified School District (superintendent Michael Cowan): (480) 472-0000 or www.mpsaz.org
• Queen Creek Unified School District (superintendent Tom Lindsey): (480) 987-5935 or www.qcusd.org
• Tempe Elementary School District (superintendent Christine Busch): (480) 730-7100 or www.tempeschools.org
• Tempe Union High School District (superintendent Kenneth Baca): (480) 839-0292 or www.tuhsd.k12.az.us
Charter operators sign a contract, or charter, with the state to provide a free public education to any child.
Many charter schools serve niche populations, such as performing arts students or at-risk students, while others offer different types of curriculum and instruction from those found in traditional district schools, such as a project-based learning approach, back-to-basics focus or block scheduling. Charter schools are often smaller than district schools, offering more individualized instruction.
In recent years, some Arizona charter schools, such as Tempe Preparatory Academy and the BASIS schools, which have several campuses in Arizona — including Mesa and Ahwatukee beginning this fall, and Chandler — have garnered state and national recognition for outstanding academic achievement. Arizona State University entered the charter market by offering ASU Preparatory Academy K-12 schools at or near ASU Polytechnic in both east Mesa and Phoenix.
To learn more and get a current list of charter schools in your area, contact the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, (602) 364-3080 or http://www.asbcs.az.gov/.
Private and parochial schools
Private and parochial schools have been expanding in the East Valley, especially since the state passed a tuition tax credit law that helps fund scholarships for students wanting to attend a private school. Arizonans receive a tax credit for donating to school tuition organizations, or STOs, which give scholarships to private school students.
The East Valley is home to many private and parochial K-12 schools that excel in academics and athletics. The National Center for Education Statistics lists 53 private schools in Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek, and five private schools in Ahwatukee. Many parents also opt to send their kids to private and parochial schools in nearby Scottsdale and Phoenix.
To learn more about private schools, tuition tax credits and to obtain a list of school tuition organizations (STOs), contact the Arizona Department of Revenue at http://www.azdor.gov.
Empowerment scholarship accounts
In 2011, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law that provides for state-funded education savings accounts to help children with disabilities enroll in private schools or online classes, or to receive instruction at home. Since then, the law has been expanded to include children in foster care, children of active military members and children attending failing schools or entering kindergarten. The law also permits these students to take college classes while still in high school or to save the money in their account for college after they graduate.
If your children qualify, the amount they get will vary. The state will determine the amount based on the student’s public school funding level under the state school finance formula. The scholarship is equal to 90 percent of the funding a public school would have received to educate that child. Families must submit documents showing how the funds were used.
To qualify, students must have attended a public school recently, be entering school for the first time, or previously received a savings account. Students who use a savings account are required to withdraw from public school.
The deadline for applications is in the spring. Awards are only given once a year.
The account funds must be used to provide your child with an education that includes, at minimum, reading, grammar, math, social studies and science. Eligible expenses include tuition, textbooks, therapies, and tutoring, among others.
For more details, visit the Arizona Department of Education website at https://www.azed.gov/esa.