School Choice & Charters

Progress, Problems Highlighted In Arizona Charter Study

By Darcia Harris Bowman — June 23, 2004 4 min read
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At its 10th anniversary, one of the nation’s largest experiments with independent public schools has enjoyed unfettered growth and solid academic performance. But a new report also suggests that the Arizona charter movement’s successes have been marred by a lack of adequate oversight and strong leadership.

“The Rugged Frontier: A Decade of Public Charter Schools in Arizona,” is available from the Progressive Policy Institute. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Arizona is host to 491 charter schools, second only to California’s 500. In fact, nearly one of every four public schools in the Grand Canyon State operates with a charter.

Looking just at scores on state tests, Arizona charter schools appear to be performing well on average compared with regular public schools, indicating that “more ‘flowers’ than ‘weeds’ appear to be blooming,” according to the report. It was written by charter school experts Bryan C. Hassel and Michelle Godard Terrell and released June 3.

The authors note that in the 2003-04 academic year, 40.4 percent of charter schools that participated in the state’s accountability system were designated as “highly performing” or “excelling,” compared with 26.6 percent of regular public schools.

The report also cites a more extensive analysis of 158,000 test scores from 62,000 Arizona students that found that those attending charter schools achieved an overall annual growth in achievement that was slightly higher than students at regular public schools.

That’s some of the good news about charter schools, but the authors temper it with a number of warnings. Their chief concern is with the body that authorizes and oversees most of the state’s charter schools, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

That state entity has allowed more charter schools to open than any other authorizing organization in the country, according to the report. But with only eight full-time staff members and one contract accountant, it suggests, the board simply can’t oversee the vast collection of far-flung schools for which it’s responsible.

Weak Oversight Noted

The report suggests that the few “bad apple” schools that have broken laws and abused their independence over the years may be a sign of weak oversight. What’s worse, the authors argue, is that little prevents such problems from cropping up again.

The Road Ahead: Ideas for
Arizona Charter Schools

** Focus oversight on academics and bottom-line compliance issues, minimize administrative burdens on schools and oversight agencies, and increase use of
spot checks.

** Develop a database of performance information online, along with access to schools’ audits and compliance records.

** Establish a clear, workable process for closing schools that are not performing well. Set explicit thresholds of low performance or noncompliance that trigger charter revocations.

** Provide more resources for high-quality charter school authorizing, including additional revenue and possibly more organizations with the authority to approve charters.

** Build a better support system to expand the number of high- quality charter schools. Diversify the supply of service providers for such schools in areas such as office management and facilities, and create opportunities to replicate successful charter schools already in operation.

SOURCE: “The Rugged Frontier: A Decade of Public Charter Schools in Arizona”

“With a fully laissez-faire system, state and authorizing officials have no reasonable way to assure that charter schools are carrying out even the most basic responsibilities of public schools, such as being open to all students and keeping children safe from harm,” write Mr. Hassel, the co-director of the education policy firm Public Impact, and Ms. Terrell, an independent consultant who has done extensive research on charter school issues. “There is simply no way a small agency with hundreds of sites to oversee can manage that task.”

“As a consequence,” they contend, “the brush fires that have flared up are inevitable.”

Kristen Jordison, the executive director of the Phoenix-based charter school board, readily agreed that the charter school board could use a larger staff. But she also said the problem schools have been few and far between.

“What they describe in the report is true,” she said. “However, for the number of schools we have, I think the problems are overstated.”

In response to concerns about accountability, Ms. Jordison said the board had recently enacted a number of reforms, such as a more rigorous application process and quicker follow-up on financial problems.

Many of those changes are noted in the report. Whether they are real solutions or just window dressing remains to be seen, the authors say.

In the meantime, Mr. Hassel and Ms. Terrel suggest that the state consider diversifying its approach to chartering schools, a move that Ms. Jordison said is already being studied by the board.

“Having more than one prominent authorizer,” the report says, “would allow different approaches to oversight to emerge.”

Charter Politics

As a group, the state’s charter schools may be ill-prepared for the legislative and regulatory battles that may lie ahead, the report’s authors also suggest.

The assistance organizations that fought to help charter schools gain footholds in other states were a low priority in Arizona because the charter law there gave advocates “largely what they wanted from the start,” the report argues.

The political landscape is changing, the authors say, and “it is unclear whether the schools will have the needed muscle” to protect their interests.

But Margaret Roush-Meier, the executive director of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, indicates that won’t be a problem.

In an e-mail last week, Ms. Roush-Meier listed a number of key legislative victories won by charter schools over the past 10 years.

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