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Arizona Charters: Families vs. Facts, or Just the Media?

May 15, 2019

May 15, 2019
by Matt Beienburg

Arizona is surging.  As the fourth fastest growing state in the nation and home to the single fastest growing county in the U.S., Arizona saw more people choose to move to the Phoenix metropolitan area from other parts of the U.S. in 2017-2018 than any other domestic destination.

Either a lot of people are being duped, or the Grand Canyon State must be offering expanded opportunity and a higher quality of life than these Americans had found elsewhere.

It turns out the very same is true in Arizona’s charter school sector. 

Just as thousands of Americans have voted with their feet to leave states like California—where high costs of living and burdensome regulations have squeezed families and businesses alike—Arizona parents are choosing to entrust their children not simply to the nearest school assigned to them by their zip code, but to institutions offering those students the best chance for success.    

For many, this means independently operated, tuition-free charter schools.

In fact, while enrollment in district schools has stagnated overall, Arizona’s charter sector has more than doubled since 2008, increasing by over 100,000 students and now educating nearly one in five public school pupils statewide.

Source: Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee FY 2020 Baseline and FY 2015 Appropriations Report.

Yet despite this surging show of support by parents and families, many politicians and pundits seem bent on inducing a vote of no-confidence in Arizona’s charter sector.

For example, USA Today recently lamented that “Arizona’s laissez-faire charter system avoided a crackdown again” this year due to new charter legislation stalling in the statehouse.

The newspaper’s disappointment came after its state-level affiliate, The Arizona Republic, won the prestigious George Polk Award for Education Reporting for its coverage of Arizona’s charter sector.  The Republic had earned praise from the award committee for reporting that Arizona’s charters had mismanaged public resources and consequently “failed to outperform neighboring public schools.”

But if the data is indeed stacked against charters and their mediocrity, how do we reconcile families’ faith in charters with the cold hard facts about the schools’ performance?

Well, regarding the award-winning coverage from The Republic, its attacks on charters’ operational and financial workings are largely misguided. But far worse, it turns out the paper had completely manufactured its findings about charters’ academic outcomes without the slightest measure of quality control or regard for their truthfulness, and then won an award in part for doing so.

As disclosed in the Arizona Chamber Business News, The Republic owed its findings to an error in its handling of state data, which had led the paper to bizarrely conclude that a group of Arizona’s most successful networks like Great Hearts, American Leadership Academy, and BASIS (the latter of which operated the five best-ranked public high schools in the countryin 2018) had been obliterated by their district peers, despite having some of the highest “A-F” school ratings in the state (which measure student achievement and growth).  As Dr. Matthew Ladner of the Arizona Chamber Foundation observed after this came to light, The Republic “torture[d] the A-F data until it made a false confession.”

As if this weren’t enough, The Republic had claimed that charters’ four-year high school graduation rates fell far below those of district schools.  Yet when informed that their  findings were again based entirely on a grossly deceptive presentation of available data—and that in reality, charters’ graduation rates met or exceeded those of district schools—the paper’s staff refused to publicly issue a correction.

The promise of Arizona and its charter schools is no desert mirage.  Just as the state now ranks third in economic momentum nationwide, Arizona’s charters have scored higher gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than their district peers in Arizona and across the country over the last decade, while educating a diverse student body and receiving less funding per pupil than districts.  And they have accomplished this while offering families a wide range of curriculum options focused on everything from classical or American texts to science, performing arts, and more.

In the spirit of National Charter Schools Week, I would hope that even opponents of charters might set aside their own personal and political biases to briefly celebrate charters’ success, rather than attacking them for partisan gain or professional acclaim.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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