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Arizona Charter Schools: Serving Parents through Results, Not Red Tape
by Robert Marano, Ph.D., The Goldwater Institute
12 October 2003

Research shows that children learn more in Arizona charter schools than children in public schools, and outperform them on tests, yet critics prefer the charter school systems favored by Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York, which require thousands of dollars to pad the pockets of politicians, lawyers, and consultants.

The Arizona State Charter Board has come under fire. The Arizona Republic recently published two stories claiming that the charter board, which has authorized about three-quarters of Arizona's nearly 500 charter schools, needs more oversight. Yet neither story cited any evidence that more paperwork will improve the quality of new charter schools.

It was reported that the board focuses on the academic substance of school proposals, rather than their financial and construction plans. Indeed, in some cases the board approved schools not ready to open. But does that mean the charter board is failing to protect parents from unscrupulous or incompetent charter operators?

As a former public servant in the Clinton Administration and an academic who has published one scholarly book and five other refereed journals pieces on Arizona charter schools, I find the latest critique of the Arizona Charter Board disappointing in three respects.

First, critics seem to prefer the charter process in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York, where chartering a school is a highly complex process requiring thousands of dollars in fees to lawyers, consultants, and even politicians. In Philadelphia, for example, several charter operators have ties to city council members. Alternatively, in these states only businesses have pockets deep enough to charter. In contrast, over 70 percent of Arizona charter campuses were started by teachers, social workers, parents, or school administrators—people who know and care about education.

Second, whatever the process by which they are approved, the vast majority of Arizona charter schools have solid track records. Roughly 10 percent of Arizona charter schools that were opened have closed. That’s equivalent to the national average.

More important, 98 studies on charter school performance have been written by leading educational and research institutions, including RAND and Columbia University. Ninety percent of these studies indicate charter schools perform better than regular public schools. This June, for instance, Manhattan Institute scholars found that “charter schools serving the general student population outperformed nearby regular public schools on math tests by …3 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile….[and] on reading tests by…2 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile.”

In Arizona, research shows students learn more at Arizona charters than in regular district schools, even though charters spend nearly 25 percent less per pupil and receive no capital funding from the state. Surveys also show that Arizona charters have superior parent satisfaction. The latest state parent satisfaction survey found more than 67 percent of charter school parents give their schools an A or A+, about twice the percentage for traditional public schools.

Third, as my team has shown in refereed articles in Teachers College Record, Policy Studies Journal, and in a Brookings Institution collection, Arizona district schools react to charter competition by improving. Likewise, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that “charter competition made Arizona public schools improve their productivity relative to their own initial trends.” Public schools not facing charter school competition raised their annual improvement in achievement on NAEP scores by 1.4 and 1.39 percentile points in fourth grade reading and math respectively when charter school competition was introduced, even though their previous rate of change in achievement had been 0.6 percentile points lower than other public schools not facing charter competition.

Arizona’s flexible charter law gives the state’s parents options unheard of here in Pennsylvania, where school districts routinely spend over $13,000 per child. My Pennsylvania district spends over $19,000 per child, yet parents are not allowed to visit the classroom and principals seldom return phone calls. When my neighbors and I dared ask about developing a Montessori option, we were dismissed with, “We’re a public school: we don’t do that,” and, “Is there something wrong with your children?”

From my years helping the Clinton Administration’s reinventing government program, I know that what matters about education is not increasing regulations, but improving results. And the results show that Arizona charter schools are doing well. Too bad critics focus on the isolated bad apples, rather than the overwhelming evidence showing charter schools improve student achievement.

Robert Maranto, Ph.D., teaches political science at Villanova University and is an associate scholar at the Goldwater Institute.

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