School & District Management

Arizona Charter School Performance Varies Widely, Study Says

By Arianna Prothero — November 06, 2014 2 min read
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Academic success varies considerably among Arizona’s charter schools and on average charters perform no better—and sometimes worse—than regular public schools, according to a report by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

In a post on the on the Brookings Institute website, however, the report’s authors write that a great deal of nuance is missed in comparing the average performance of charter schools against that of traditional public schools:

...even though the average charter has a zero or negative impact on test scores, there are more charters with very large positive or very large negative test-score impacts than there are traditional public schools with such extreme outcomes. We also find that the negative impacts of charters are concentrated in non-urban areas (Figure 2), which is consistent with a lottery-based national study finding that charter middle schools deliver better results in urban areas."

So, for their study, the researchers investigated which types of charters performed the best. Looking at mission statements, they found those focused on academic rigor had positive effects on student math scores, while those with a mission statement that was either more general or had an arts or a progressive, ‘whole child’ focus had a negative effect.

The researchers say considerable variability in performance should be no surprise in a sector premised on the idea of experimentation, and that poorly performing charter schools are much more likely to be shut down than their regular district school counterparts.

Again, no surprise there, considering that closing weak schools is ostensibly a primary tenet of the whole charter movement. To emphasize that dynamic, the report’s authors point to a quirk in Arizona’s charter law that they say could lead to some big changes in the state’s charter landscape very soon:

Arizona's charter school law is unique in allowing charter schools to operate for 15 years before coming up for review. Because the most rapid expansion of the Arizona charter sector occurred around the turn of the 21st century, many charters are poised to come up for review in the next few years. This provides an opportunity for rapid improvement through careful attention to quality in the reauthorization process, and the fact that lower-quality charter schools have been more likely to have their charters revoked in recent years is encouraging in this regard."

Authorizers, the groups that approve, oversee, and close charter schools, are far more likely to shut down a school during the renewal period rather than the middle of its contract term, according to survey data compiled by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (and separate from the Brookings report).

Arizona has the largest proportion of students enrolled in charter schools, with three times as many as the national average—excluding the District of Columbia, where nearly half the city’s public schools are charters. A hair over 13 percent of Arizona schoolchildren attended a charter in the 2012-2013 school year.

The Brookings Institute study uses statewide longitudinal data from the Arizona Department of Education on individual students who attended charter and traditional public schools between 2006 and 2012.

The paper will appear in the peer reviewed journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and was supported in part by the Goldwater Institute, a pro-school choice advocacy and research organization.

Related: Charter School Authorizers Grapple With Closures

Related: Who Oversees Charters in Your State (Interactive Map)G

Graph from ‘Mixed Results for Arizona’s Charter Schools’ by Matthew M. Chingos and Martin R. West for the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.