Over the past 20 years, Arizona teachers, parents, and community leaders have created more than 500 charter schools—independent, tuition-free public schools that operate with fewer regulations in exchange for higher levels of transparency. Some of these schools are among the highest-achieving schools in the nation, with their students routinely topping nationwide comparisons.
With so many charter schools in operation, however, performance can vary from school to school. The variation has led researchers from Stanford and WestEd, along with the New York Times, to criticize Arizona charter schools.
But reports of a decline in Arizona charter school quality have been exaggerated. Key indicators suggest that charter schools remain a powerful tool for improving student achievement:
Both low-income Arizona charter school students and average charter school students outperform their traditional public school peers on a national assessment.
A higher percentage of charter schools earned A’s on their school report cards than did traditional schools in 2011 and 2012, the first two years of Arizona’s school report card system.
Charters represent a disproportionate number of the highest-performing public schools in Arizona.
Results such as these should encourage lawmakers to remove roadblocks that prevent charter schools from serving more students. For example, some districts have vacant or underused facilities that they refuse to make available to charter schools. Arizona School Facilities Board data show that in more than half of the traditional schools (54 percent) in the 10 largest Arizona school districts, at least 1 out of every 4 available seats is empty. Lawmakers should make sure vacant public school buildings are sold or leased to the highest bidder, charter school or otherwise.
Further, to prevent widespread stagnation among charter schools, lawmakers must be careful not to impose the same regulations on charters that they impose on traditional schools. These requirements create fewer choices for parents because charters will not be free to use innovative approaches to teaching and learning that are serving students so well today.
Arizona must hold charter schools accountable for student achievement and financial integrity. Charters that are consistently low performing or fail to meet certain achievement levels or manage finances properly can be closed. And with every charter school that is closed for academic reasons, the quality gap between charter schools and traditional schools will grow. Remaining charter schools will be more likely to perform at a higher level than similar traditional schools. Encouraging charters to innovate and serve students while holding them accountable for results will create an education environment that prepares students for success.