If there was an award for mindless over-regulation by government school bureaucracy, Arizona's Department of Education would be a favorite to win it.
The ADE has decreed that the curricula of all public schools, including charter schools, must be exactly aligned grade by grade.
One of its specific requirements (the educational rationale for which is obscure at best) is that all schools must teach U.S. history in the seventh and eighth grades.
Five Arizona charter schools prefer to use a different order: ancient history in seventh grade, medieval history in eighth grade, and U.S. history beginning in the ninth grade.
Four of these charters are in the top 10 performing schools in Arizona, based on the state assessment. One of them, BASIS Tucson, has been ranked among Newsweek's 10 best high schools in the nation for the past two years.
Who is to say that teaching history in chronological order doesn't make greater sense? Susan Wise Bauer, a College of William and Mary professor who has written critically acclaimed works of history, argues that teaching U.S. history after laying a foundation of world history would be a sensible reform.
Public school bureaucracies (as in Arizona) assume under the so-called expanding horizons model that children must learn about their own neighborhood first, then study the history of their state and the United States, and then maybe take a little world history in high school, perhaps for advanced placement credit.
This sort of history education, says Bauer, produces adults who have no idea how American history relates to the rest of the world. In their years of study, American history was so segmented off from world history . that they were never able to line up the events of the American past with the central events in the history of other countries.
Arizona's educrats don't try to make a logical case for teaching history out of order. They simply say a rules a rule: Obey us or forfeit your state support.
Aren't public charter schools supposed to offer alternatives to conventional public schooling? Well, yes, and since 1994, charter schools have been doing that in Arizona. Charters enroll 10 percent of the states public school students, and a large-scale study has shown that, on average, they make faster academic gains than kids in traditional public schools.
Nevertheless, the ADE started asserting authority to force charters to align with state-prescribed curricula in 2003, and this year it sought to bring down the hammer on the chronological teaching of history.
The Goldwater Institute is representing the five charter schools in a lawsuit in Maricopa County seeking to nullify the state regulation. On Aug. 7, a county judge refused on procedural grounds to issue an injunction preventing the curriculum mandate from going into effect later this month.
The alleged merits of this policy remain to be heard, but as of now, charter schools must hastily re-arrange their classical liberal-arts curricula in order to comply with a state mandate that has exactly nothing to do with elevating student achievement.
The three superintendents of public instruction who served from 1987 until 2003, when current Superintendent Tom Horne took over, have filed court papers opposing the ADE's regulatory power grab.
The grade-by-grade curriculum alignment requirements impair the ability of public charter schools to carry out their mission, stated C. Diane Bishop, who was state superintendent when Arizona enacted its charter-school law in 1994. Such schools flourish because they are autonomous.
This mindless regulatory foray by Horne and the ADE could mar Arizona's reputation as a state that is friendly to entrepreneurial education and parental choice.