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Accessibility, Cost A Concern At Arizona's Largest Charter School System

Great Hearts Academies is the largest charter school system in Arizona. They run off a mix of public and private funding, while offering tuition-free education to nearly 10,000 students (with thousands more on a wait list).
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Great Hearts Academies is the largest charter school system in Arizona. They run off a mix of public and private funding, while offering tuition-free education to nearly 10,000 students (with thousands more on a wait list).

Arizona’s educational system is one of the worst funded in the nation. So at many traditional public schools, classes like literature, philosophy and visual art have been scaled down or cut completely in recent years. But at the state’s largest charter school system, the liberal arts are flourishing.

Still, some educators have concerns about Great Hearts Academies.  

On a recent morning, 10-year-old Lauren Kort was reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” She holds the title of Great Hearts Bard, after winning a recent contest.

That’s the sort of thing that happens at Great Hearts’ Quayle Campus in Phoenix, named after the famous family who donated $1.5 million a few years ago. Though public, it feels like a private school, with tall ceilings and sparkling hallways. Here, you can meet hundreds of uniform-clad kids, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and one very enthusiastic CEO, Erik Twist.

“We want to give our students an absorption into the magic of the world, the beauty of the world, the inexhaustible brilliance and inspiration of the world," Twist said.

He said the nearly 10,000 students at Great Hearts schools throughout the Valley get a different sort of educational experience.

“They’re fired up about what’s happening in the classroom, that they’re excited,” he said. “We like to say, ‘It’s not the liberal arts without joy.’”

The schools foster that, he said, with small class sizes and a curriculum that goes beyond what will be on a standardized test.

That means calculus, but also Latin and music, “Plato and Aristotle, the writings of Cicero, you know,” Twist said. “The writings of Dante.”

And all of this is making a huge difference to 10th-grader Erika Bill.

“When I talk to some of my parents’ friends, they really feel like they can get into a philosophical discussion with me and treat me like a mature, young woman, rather than a teenager," she said.

So, is there a problem?

“Well, there really is a problem,” said Andrew Morrill, a former high-school English teacher and now the president of the nonprofit Arizona Education Association. He said that one issue with a school like Great Hearts is accessibility.

“Let’s begin with transportation,” he said.

Like the many charter schools, Great Hearts does not offer buses.

“That, right there, is a filter,” Morrill said. “If I’m a lower middle class family, and both parents are working, do I really have the means every morning to drive my student some miles away over to a charter school? No.”

Add to that costs for things like uniforms and sports and a deposit for books, and some media outlets have reported that it could cost more than $1,000 to go to Great Hearts school. That’s even though they’re all tuition-free.

A Great Hearts’ spokesperson would not confirm that estimate and stressed that families can get financial help from the school. But Morrill contends that the very existence of fees could be intimidating, as could Great Hearts encouragement — on their website and on take-home materials — for parents to donate to its schools.

“That seems to be to be a code for ‘we educate a certain kind of student here and a certain economic level,’” Morrill said. “It’s kind of this self-referencing loop.”

But back at Great Hearts, Erik Twist said his school is committed to educating all kids.

“We believe that this education that we provide has too long been siloed among the elite,” he said.

Twist claims his schools reflect their neighborhoods. The thing is, those neighborhoods tend to be white and wealthy, with only two campuses of the 19 Great Heart schools in the Valley in areas with a majority Latino and African-American population. Twist said those schools have been reaching out to area residents, even going door to door.

“It’s not just a numbers game. It’s not just utilitarian,” he said. “It is deeply humane. And it has their hearts and their minds as their highest interest.”

But not everyone is convinced.

While Great Hearts has expanded into Texas, its proposed Tennessee schools were killed a few years ago by critics on Nashville’s school board over concerns about diversity.

KJZZ's Jude Joffe-Block contributed to this report.

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.