The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes on a Different Meaning If Your Kid Has a Disability
I spotted Jay Heiler from across a crowded Pei Wei on a hot summer night in 2013. It had been years since I'd seen him last, but Heiler hadn't changed a bit, a head or two taller than the other patrons, a boyish wave in his carefully combed blond hair.
Self-portrait by Sophie
I didn't catch his eye, but I knew he'd come over to say hello, because Jay Heiler is one of the most unfailingly polite people I've ever met. Twenty years ago, he was chief of staff to then-Governor J. Fife Symington, and my colleagues and I regularly beat them both up in the pages of New Times. Still, Heiler always returned my calls.
I looked up from my chicken and broccoli and smiled.
"And this must be Annabelle," he said, remembering the name of my older daughter, almost 12 at the time.
"No, Jay," I said, motioning to the 10-year-old across the table. "This is Sophie."
He took a closer look and for a split second, I thought Heiler might bolt from the table; maybe he'd forgotten that my younger child has Down syndrome. He recovered just as quickly and changed the subject, mentioning that he saw my "Pop" at a golf tournament, wanting to know the gossip at the newspaper.
In many ways, Jay Heiler is the godfather of Arizona's school choice movement. During his time with Symington, he tried unsuccessfully to legalize school vouchers, then championed legislation that ultimately made Arizona the second state in the nation with charter schools.
Now, Arizona has two different kinds of public schools -- "charter" and the traditional "district." And to this day, Arizona's law still is considered one of the friendliest to charter operators. Heiler chairs the Arizona Association of Charter Schools. If anyone knows Arizona charter schools, it's Heiler. And that gave me an idea.
"Hey, Jay, I have a question for you," I said, looking over at Sophie, who was busy shoveling lo mein into her mouth.
In another year, I explained, Sophie will be done with elementary school, and I hope to find just the right fit for her for junior high. She'd been in a district school, but I was open to a charter. And I figured that if anyone would know of the perfect charter school for Sophie, it was Jay Heiler.
Have any suggestions? I asked.
Heiler nodded, not missing a beat. But he didn't mention any charter schools. Instead, he said, he'd heard there were some very good middle schools in the district where Sophie was already going to school.
Then he changed the subject again.