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A primer on charter schools

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By Joseph D’andre
Sierra Vista Herald
April 9, 2015

Doug Ducey wants to continue to expand the role of charter schools in the Arizona education system.

However if you walk down the street and ask anyone what a charter school is, exactly, you will get a muddled response of confusion. So here is a primer on charter school education.

Arizona has 531 charter schools serving 136,323 students, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

In the 2013-2014 school year, Arizona opened the second most charter schools in the nation with 87 new schools educating 39,000 students according to the National Alliance for Public Charter School data.

There are 1.7 million students enrolled in charter schools in America. Just 10 years ago there were only 58,620 students enrolled according to studies by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education and Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

So what exactly are charter schools?

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are a form of free public education funded by the government and open to all students.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are independently run by charter management organizations and are free from curriculum regulations that bind together schools run by a district.

In exchange for their freedom of operation, charter schools must sign a charter promising they will meet certain academic and management performance goals or face closure.

Charter schools were introduced to the United States in 1991 with the intention of offering parents an additional choice of education and being ‘laboratories of innovation.’

How have charter schools performed?

Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has been studying charter schools since 2009. In its most recent study released after the 2013 school year, the most telling statistics compare reading and math scores of charter schools to traditional public schools in their local market.

The study found that reading scores at over half of the nations charter schools are not significantly different than their local market public school, and 19 percent are significantly worst.

Forty percent of the nations charter schools report math scores that are not significantly different and 30 percent are significantly worst.

However, a quarter of charter schools produced significantly better reading scores than their local traditional public school, and nearly a third of charter schools produced significantly better math scores.

How are charter schools similar to traditional public schools? How are they different?

Both public and charter schools are funded by federal, state and local tax dollars. Additionally, both public and charter schools receive money per pupil that attends school.

Charter schools receive 36 percent less per pupil on average according to the Center for Education Reform. Additionally, charter schools do not receive funds to pay for their facilities so in many cases a percent of pupil funds must be spent on that.

Like public schools, charter schools “must be religiously neutral and must be non-religious in their programs, admissions policies, governance, and employments practices,” according to the United States Department of Education.

The most glaring difference that separates public from charter schools is the state-sponsored curriculum.

Public schools are bound to a strict curriculum that outlines how and what a student is taught, and how they are evaluated.

Charter schools are given relatively free rein in terms of curriculum. Rather than a set curriculum defined by the state, charter schools are allowed to design their own curriculums.

For example, BASIS Schools, a successful chain of charter schools based out of Arizona, is known for an accelerated math and science program that prepares students to take AP exams, according to an executive at BASIS, Dr. Peter Benzanson.

“Parents choose us because of our accelerated and rich math and science program,” Benzanson said.

Given this freedom, charter schools must meet certain standardized test scores outlined in their agreed upon charter. If they do not meet their academic or financial expectations, they risk being closed down.

The left supports charter schools, or is it the right?

Republicans have traditionally favored charter schools by way of public education reform and free choice of school. On the other hand, Democrats are backed by the ultra powerful teachers union that oppose charter schools and see them as competition. Only 7 percent of charter schools are unionized according to the Center for Education Reform.

However many politicians on both sides of the fence both favor and oppose charter schools. “It is looked at as a partisan issue but there is a lot of bipartisan behind school choice,” said Michelle Tigani the director of communications at the Center for Education Reform.

Charter school supporters are spending big money to influence both Republican and Democratic politicians.

For example, Texans for Public Justice found that between 2009 and 2013 Texas’ top six charter school chains donated about $800,000 to politicians. The two highest beneficiaries were Democrat Bill White and Republican Rick Perry.

In New York, pro charter school organizations spent $16 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in 2014 alone, according to an analysis of lobbyists reports and campaign finance data found by Capital New York. The donations were to assist New York’s pro charter school Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his battle against New York City’s anti charter school Democratic Mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Where does Gov. Doug Ducey stand?

True to his Republican ideologies, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey supports charter schools and parental choice.

“For too long, the federal government has forced a one-size-fits-all model on our education system,” Ducey said at his inaugural state of the state speech. “Let’s make open enrollment and parental choice a reality,” he said.

Ducey went on to say that he wants to take the nearly 400,000 empty seats in Arizona public school classrooms, and allow the state’s top public schools – charter and traditional – the “ability to apply for use of the empty schools and empty classrooms, so we can put those kids where they belong – in the public school of their parent’s choice.”

Following his election, Ducey chose three education advisors that come from pro-charter school backgrounds: Lisa Graham Keegan, Matthew Ladner and Eric Twist.

Why support charter schools?

Simply, charter schools supply parents with an additional option when choosing a school for their children. Instead of being funneled into the only neighborhood school in their district, parents are able to make a choice depending on which school fits their child best.

“Demand for more schools of choice continues to grow,” Tigani said.

This creates competition with the traditional public schools. If a charter begins producing better results than the neighborhood public school, then the public school will be pressed to raise its standards and produce results.

Charter schools are designed to weed out the poor performing schools and only retain the successful. “There has been a movement towards putting the low performing schools out of business,” according to Benzanson. “Overall quality has increased significantly over the last five years with a movement to let high quality schools replicate,” he said.

“If the school isn’t living up to the charter, shape up or ship out,” Tigani said.

Why oppose charter schools?

One of the chief concerns of those who oppose charter schools is the concern of where their tax money is going. While there are many non-profit charter school management organizations, there are also a lot that are for-profit.

How are these organizations making a profit? “The money they get to educate the students,” is one way, according to the executive director of In The Public Interest, Donald Cohen.

For-profit charter school management organizations may take a percent of the taxpayer money allotted per pupil, and pocket it. “Some people believe there should be no for-profit charter schools,” Cohen said, “because all the money on profit could be going to the classroom or paying teachers more. Money that could be educating kids,” he said.

Opponents of charter schools also claim they may bring back segregation in schools. According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 56 percent of students in charter schools identify as either African American or Hispanic, compared to just 39 percent in traditional public schools. Additionally, over half of charter school students are in poverty according to free or reduced price lunch statistics.

This could be attributed to the fact that more than half of charter schools are located in urban locations according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

National outlook

The majority of the United States is open to charter schools. According to the 2013PDK/Gallop Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Publics Schools, slightly less than 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, two-thirds of Americans support new public charter schools in their community, and just over half of Americans believe that charter schools supply a better education than traditional public schools.

Forty-two states including the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform. Only Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia have yet to allow charter schools within their borders.

Arizona outlook

When Arizona passed its law to allow charter schools in 1994, it became among the first 10 states to do so, and is ranked the fifth strongest of the nations 43 charter laws, according to the Center for Education Reform.

The Center for Education Reform ranks charter school laws based on if it “has strong, permanent authorizing structures, equitable funding codified in law, and autonomy across state, district, and teacher rules and regulations.”

Successes And Failures

Basis Charter Schools have 14 locations in Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., and boast two of the top five high schools in the country, according to the U.S. News &World Report National High School Ranking.

A study by the organization Integrity in Education found that fraudulent charter management organizations in 15 states have wasted over $100 million in taxpayer money.

According to a report in 2012 by ABC 15 Arizona, Vicki A. Romero charter school located in Phoenix spent more than $48,681 of taxpayer money on renovating a local house that a school employee was to live in. The school paid for a gas range, microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer and dryer, leather furniture, dining room table, bed, sheets and pillows. At the time of the scandal, Vicki A. Romero school received a D in Arizona’s A-F Accountability Letter Grade System.