School Choice & Charters

Charter Pioneers Force Public School Officials To Modify Operations

By Joetta L. Sack — April 24, 2002 13 min read
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When charter schools were catapulted from a policy notion to a reality on Arizona’s education landscape in 1995, district superintendents realized that the change would affect their jobs.

“We knew it wasn’t going away,” said Marilyn M. Semones, the superintendent of the Camp Verde Unified School District here. What they didn’t realize then was just how much their jobs would be touched by charters.

With some 421 independent public charter schools to choose from, Arizona has the most charters of any state, and it has what are widely considered the nation’s most charter-friendly laws.

Today, Arizona parents shop around more than ever for their children’s schools. In the current school year, an estimated 60,000 students attend charter schools in the Grand Canyon State.

The most obvious impact of those departures from the regular public schools is the $4,500 in state per-pupil funding that goes with each student who jumps to the new schools.

But the charters are influential in many other ways. Some Arizona school districts, in response to the competition, have begun advertising and public relations campaigns to boost their schools’ image. Some also have added academic programs and taken other creative steps to keep and woo parents and students back.

Ripple Effect

“It’s easy to sit on your hands, until you start to see people leave for charters,” said Rae J. Waters, a school board member for the 19,500-student Kyrene district near Phoenix. Kyrene now advertises its schools in newspapers and movie theaters.

Some superintendents who did not acknowledge the competition from charter schools found themselves without jobs. And superintendents who try to respond may learn that teachers don’t share their concern over student losses.

Many Arizona district officials admit that the competition has improved their services and outreach. They also note, however, that lost funding hurts existing programs, and they do not think that most charters necessarily give students a better education.

“We may be offering programs that we think are good,” Ms. Waters said. “But maybe we need to educate the parent, or see what the parents think are good.”

Because of Arizona’s liberal charter laws and the large number of charter schools in the state, the resulting drain of students from traditional public schools and the reactions by districts here are likely to be the most extreme.

Yet districts in other parts of the country are responding in similar ways, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a research and advocacy group in Washington that favors charter schools and other forms of educational choice.

“The ripple is very clear, and is one of the most visible effects of charter schools,” Ms. Allen said. “That kind of ripple has been happening from the first days of charter schools.”

Over the past two years, Camp Verde, a 1,300-student district set in desert mountains, has seen about 160 students depart for new charter schools and a new parochial school. The transfers left such a gouge in the district’s coffers—and to a lesser extent, administrators’ egos—that school leaders are studying strategies for outreach to try to persuade students and their parents to stay.

District’s Message

Camp Verde administrators maintain that their schools are running well, despite lower-than-average test scores. “I don’t think we’re out of step at all,” Superintendent Semones said. “Our teachers pride themselves on offering a top-notch curriculum.”

Most often, the Camp Verde officials maintain, students leave because they can’t adhere to the district’s discipline and academic requirements and want an easier path to a diploma. The district officials view charters as having lower standards for student behavior and offering an easier curriculum to attract students who might not fit in at the regular public schools. “For a lot of students, it’s the path of least resistance,” said John Bassous, a member of the district’s school board who is overseeing the outreach campaign.

This rural town has a wide range of income and education levels. Most of its residents are retired, and it’s tough to get people interested in the schools.

That situation makes the district’s campaign to attract and keep students more important, officials say. So they’re thinking of strategies to draw not only parents but also other members of the community to their schools. District officials recently convened a group of parents, teachers, business leaders, a college professor, and other community members to help design and carry out the campaign.

For instance, the district has asked teachers to become more active in the community and to talk up the benefits of their schools. The district has added an after-school drama program and invited residents to performances. It’s also added preschool classes on the theory that if children start school here, they will be more likely to stay.

And as age-old wisdom shows, food is always a draw. One of the district’s most popular tactics was inviting the community to a football game last fall and offering a soda and hot dog for 50 cents—a quarter-pound, all-beef hot dog, Mr. Bassous noted.

School officials have also begun exit interviews at the high school to find out where students go when they transfer, and why.

Arizona’s 73,000-Mesa district is taking similar steps. Located just outside Phoenix, Mesa has expanded some existing, popular programs because of high demand and in response to charter schools that opened nearby and offered the same services.

Chuck Essigs, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services and government relations, said the district has long offered Montessori and back-to-basics schools to please parents who have been able to choose schools within several neighboring districts for nearly two decades under a cooperative agreement.

But Mesa added Montessori and back-to-basics programs at schools where the district risked losing students to charters.

In Kyrene, some of the new programs—which include child care and preschool, enrichment, athletics, computer study, and art classes—might have been added regardless of whether charters were a presence, said Ms. Waters: “The bottom line is, we’re doing it because it’s good for kids.”

Charter Movement

Under its 1994 charter school law, Arizona now has 287 charters, some of which have multiple sites for schools, totaling 421 schools. Charter hopefuls can apply to one of three entities for a charter: the state school board, the local school district, or the state charter school board.

The nearly 60,000 students attending charter schools make up about 7 percent of the total school population in Arizona.

A charter school must have a curriculum aligned to state standards and give state tests, said Lyle H. Skillen, the director of charter school administration for the state education Department.

“The popular perception is that charters aren’t accountable, but there are lots and lots of things they must report,” Mr. Skillen said.

But Arizona’s school district leaders generally feel they’re on an uneven playing field. Charter organizers, district officials say, can raise private money more easily, choose their own hours of operation, hire uncertified teachers, and duck out of many other cumbersome regulations that restrict regular public schools.

Mostly, districts complain about the “revolving door"—students who leave for a new charter school and find that it’s not what they want, and sometimes try out two or three more charters before returning to a regular public school.

Those students, district administrators say, often need remedial education and have a hard time adjusting to public school schedules. Nobody tracks the movement of such students, but officials agree it is occurring.

“Mobility in charter schools is a serious issue,” Mr. Skillen said. “However, if a parent feels that a school isn’t doing justice to a child’s education, at least they have an option.”

Money Leaves, Too

It’s the financial straits that have grabbed the most attention.

Arizona school officials consistently complain that their state is the stingiest when it comes to education—this school year, it provided districts with about $4,500 per student, ranking 50th nationally for per-pupil spending.

In Mesa, one of the fastest-growing districts in the country in the 1980s, the charter school movement knocked the enrollment pattern off course. Last year, the school system lost about 1,900 of its 73,000 students to charter schools, said the district’s director of community relations, Judi Willis.

That loss translated into $7.5 million in lost state aid from a $408 million budget this school year, she said. It’s not a huge percentage, she said, but in the face of rising teachers’ salaries, higher health-insurance costs, and costs related to staff development, the district may have to cut back on educational programs this year.

“If we had those 1,900 students and $7.5 million back, it sure would make a difference,” Ms. Willis said.

Some officials say that special education, often one of the largest and fastest- growing expenses for a district, could be the biggest problem. Although charter schools are required to take special-needs students, they rarely do, district administrators say, and that leaves districts with fewer regular education students, whom they use to leverage costs associated with special education.

But charter supporters say districts look at the loss of aid the wrong way. “Administrators, unfortunately, look at the bottom line,” Mr. Skillen said. “It’s not your money, it’s the children’s money.”

Added Ms. Allen, “If money is flowing out of schools rapidly, that should be a wake-up call.”

Competitive New World

District leaders, for their part, find a somewhat surprising attitude toward the loss of students among their own teachers. It’s hard, some Arizona administrators say, to make teachers realize that the loss of students is a threat to their schools’ business, not the chance for smaller class.

“The real challenge is convincing our 4,000 teachers we’re in a competitive world, and to stay strong competitively, we have to attract and retain students,” said Mr. Essigs of the Mesa district. “They don’t see the connection—when a student walks out the door, they take about $4,000 in revenue with them.”

Though some Camp Verde students who have left were ones with severe behavior problems, the district wants to have them back, Ms. Semones said.

“A lot of teachers don’t see that perspective,” she said. “They’re only concerned with what goes on around their classroom because historically, that’s all they’ve had to deal with.”

Camp Verde officials worry about the day when they may have to lay off teachers. So far, two elementary school positions have been cut by attrition.

Meanwhile, some teachers and administrators still feel charters may just be a fleeting trend.

“For a lot of parents, it’s the new soda pop on the shelves,” said Thomas Lee, the principal at Camp Verde Elementary School.

Joe Peddie, the lead teacher at Camp Verde Middle School, said he thinks many students will come back to the district and better appreciate its stability and programs, after trying charters.

“Public schools have been here forever, and we will be here in the future,” Mr. Peddie said, noting that some charter schools in the area have shut down.

Even so, one report found that Arizona teachers believe their schools have improved because of the presence of charters.

A 1999 survey of teachers in Arizona and Nevada, which until 1998-99 did not have a charter school, found that Arizona teachers, particularly those in the schools that had lost the most students to charters, believed that their schools had improved over a three-year period, from 1995 to 1998.

The study was conducted by Robert A. Maranto, a professor of political science at Villanova University; Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of government and education at the University of Virginia; and Scott Milliman, an associate professor of economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

“The impacts weren’t huge, but we found that Arizona teachers viewed their schools as getting better, while Nevada teachers saw their schools as dead in the water,” Mr. Maranto said.

Jobs Jeopardized

Moreover, Mr. Maranto’s research has shown that Arizona teachers in regular public schools have become more empowered to innovate, because schools are more open to trying new ideas if they worry they could lose students—and teachers’ own jobs—to charters.

But it’s not just teachers whose jobs are at risk if too many students leave.

Anecdotal evidence in the state has shown that administrators, particularly those who are not responsive to teachers’ and parents’ needs, are at risk of losing their jobs if charter schools move in.

In several cases, the presence of charters has put pressure on district superintendents in Arizona.

For example, if a superintendent is not popular or is having problems with parents, competition from charters could lead to increased tensions, said Mr. Maranto.

In a study released last year on Arizona districts that had responded to charter school competition, Mr. Maranto found that in four districts he examined, three superintendents were dismissed after charter schools began putting pressure on the districts.

“You can survive as a superintendent for years while treating teachers like dirt, and parents like dirt,” Mr. Maranto asserted. “Those are the [superintendents] that really got whacked by charters, and were really forced to make changes.”

A new superintendent will take the helm of Arizona’s Kyrene district in the fall. Ms. Waters said that finding a person who is well- versed in communicating with parents and teachers was a top priority for the board in its search. The person the board has hired also is willing to acknowledge and work with the charters, which is a board priority, she said.

In fact, the district wants to form partnerships with its neighborhood charter schools to provide services such as professional development, and it allows them to use school facilities, she added.

“It doesn’t do us any good to be at war with [charter schools],” Ms. Waters said.

Such partnerships are rare, said Ms. Allen of the Center for Education Reform, and should be happening more frequently.

Mixed Reactions

Not all schools in states with charter schools respond as aggressively or in the same ways as some of those in Arizona. Some schools don’t respond at all.

Across the country, researchers say, it’s the schools that begin seeing students depart to charters that respond with the most urgency.

“Nationwide, in general, you can’t say all schools are responding,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Whether school districts respond is whether they draw a small number of students or many,” he added. “It’s when you get a detectable mass of students—and teachers.”

Charters have popped up and succeeded in areas nationwide where parents are most dissatisfied with the regular public schools, he added.

Another prominent researcher has found signs that academic gains may result from competition from charters.

Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University, found preliminary evidence that regular public schools’ achievement rose as a result of the competition.

“The school choice debate should focus much more on how public schools respond to competition,” she wrote. “It appears the public schools are induced to raise achievement when they are faced with competition.”

Some Arizona school leaders don’t argue with her points, and they are taking a positive attitude toward charters.

“The positive side of it is that it makes you very competitive,” said Ms. Semones, the Camp Verde superintendent. “We’re looking at the students who are leaving and asking, ‘Why?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Charter Pioneers Force Public School Officials To Modify Operations


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