If charter schools are poised to grow in Michigan, they’ve already exploded in Arizona. Neighboring California leads the nation in sheer numbers of charter schools, but Arizona has everyone beat on percentages – a quarter of Arizona's public schools are charters, growth that accelerated after the state lifted its charter cap in 1999.
“We had huge growth in the 2000s,” said Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “Our population was booming, and our school structure couldn't keep up. It was about choice. ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ We were trying to get great leaders to open great schools. Choice dominated. Now the pendulum has swung (as growth has abated during the recession). Now it’s all about good choice.”
And it’s all about the things that accompany any free market where consumers vote with their dollars.
“Billboards, TV commercials,” says Doug Kilgore, spokesman for the Arizona Education Association, the state teachers’ union. “You’ll also hear radio ads, see print ads. Public schools advertise, too.” Schools tout their low class sizes, learn-at-home options or their educational theme.
“Arizona has been the experiment with school choice. For all the argument that competition has improved student achievement, nothing has improved,” said Kilgore. “There are bright, shining examples, but we could throw up the right schools with the right student population, and have success.”
Sigmund, predictably, disagrees. As public schools, charters perform at least as well as traditional ones, and in the most recent waves of state standardized tests, students in grades 3-8 outperformed their counterparts in traditional schools. High school test scores haven’t been as impressive, but many charters at that level carve out special student populations – those with discipline problems, pregnancies and other challenges to education.
A 2009 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found Arizona charters were, like Michigan charters, mainly without significant difference from their traditional counterparts. Seventeen percent reported academic gains that were significantly better, 37 percent of charter schools were worse and 46 percent were about the same.
Still, more than half of Arizona charters had a waiting list in at least one grade level for the 2008-09 school year, according to the state’s Charter Schools Association, based on its own survey.
All Arizona teachers, traditional public and charter, are covered by the state’s retirement system, but Kilgore calls charters “the most unregulated and expansive in the nation, with no requirement for teacher certification. (And that coverage for charter employees is under review by the Internal Revenue Service.)
“Arizona has been the experiment with school choice,” he said. “There’s no indication that the system has improved student achievement. An advocate for quality education would use Arizona as an example of what we could be heading toward. ... What you get is an opportunity for profit to start driving decisions around the kind of education our kids are getting. When that happens, you are looking as marketing as an indicator of quality, instead of real standards and a community ownership of the outcome.”
Sigmund points out that Arizona charter governing boards operate under open-meeting laws and their budgets are available for public scrutiny. She also notes that in 2010, the main authorizer for new schools is the Arizona Board for Charter Schools. As in Michigan, charters may be launched by colleges and universities, and school districts themselves.
“That means districts never saw an economic advantage to opening their own charters,” she said. “Charters are under-funded. They have to manage their money really stringently.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.