Demonstrators at a school choice rally held at the Arizona Capitol displayed various signs supporting both charter and district public schools.

Two decades after Arizona helped pioneer the charter school movement, enrollment data show the schools don’t match the school-age demographics of the state and, in many cases, their neighborhoods. White – and especially Asian – students attend charter schools at a higher rate than Hispanics, who now make up the greatest portion of Arizona’s school-age population.

Hispanic students account for 44 percent of all students in Arizona, but they make up just 36 percent of charter school students. White students, who make up 40 percent of the student population, account for 48 percent of all charter students.

“The mission of public education is to give every child in our state the equal opportunity to excel to the maximum of their capabilities,” said Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “When you have disparities of opportunity, you are systemically inhibiting some groups over other groups through public policy, and that’s just inherently wrong.”

The Arizona Department of Education hasn’t conducted a formal analysis of the school enrollment demographics, but the agency’s spokesman, Charles Tack, said they’re anecdotally aware of the disparity, and that the data “confirms that there is work to be done.”

Arizona lawmakers established charter schools in the 1990s so that parents could send their children to schools specializing in rigor, the arts or Montessori teaching methods, to provide an education more tailored than what was traditionally available in public schools.

Today, roughly 17 percent of all students in Arizona’s public schools attend a charter – about triple the national average of 5 percent. Only the District of Columbia has a greater portion of charter school students.

Charter schools here receive state funding based on enrollment, and may operate independent of school districts. They’re either run by non profit or for-profit groups. In fiscal year 2014, the state provided $8,041 per student to charter schools, compared to $9,096 per student to district schools. District schools generate additional funding through voter-approved bonds and overrides.

Arizona’s open enrollment law allows parents to send their children to any school they choose – district or charter – even if it’s outside their neighborhood, provided there is room.

The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed school enrollment demographics for public schools in Arizona, categorizing each and then comparing it to the demographic data within the surrounding communities and schools within a 10-mile radius. The analysis provides a snapshot of Arizona school demographics from 2014, the most recent statewide data available.

While there are exceptions, when charter schools are compared to their neighborhoods and to other nearby schools, data show that they are more likely to be whiter than the surrounding area, while district schools tend to over-represent Hispanic students.

As a portion of each ethnicity’s school age population, one of every six Hispanic students in Arizona attends a charter school, but for white students, it’s one in every four. Among Asians, it’s one of every three, and for Native Americans it’s one in 10. The trend is more pronounced for charter schools located in more rural communities with fewer school choices, and among specific types of charters.

In both “rigorous” and “progressive” charter schools, more than half of the student population is white, and less than 30 percent is Hispanic. Alternatively, among “at-risk” charter schools, which cater to students at risk of failing out of school, Hispanics make up an overwhelming majority of the students, with white students making up less than 20 percent.

Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, said charter schools shouldn’t be criticized for their student demographics because being diverse wasn’t the initial goal.

“Yes, we want (charter schools) to serve diverse populations, but I think it’s unfair to criticize them for not doing something that isn’t part of the main goal that they were set up to do,” Butcher said. “Their goal was to give parents more options and to improve student achievement. That’s what they were set up to do.”

Heritage Academy, a general charter school in downtown Mesa, has operated for more than 20 years, serving students in the East Valley. Its principal, Earl Taylor, said students come from as far as Coolidge and North Phoenix.

That regional focus, Taylor said, complicates the issue of how his charter school’s demographics compare to the community where it’s located. Heritage Academy is 80 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic. But the school- age population around the school is 61 percent Hispanic and 27 percent white. District schools within a 10-mile radius have nearly equal portions of white and Hispanic students.

New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe also has a student body that’s whiter than the surrounding area. Sixty-nine percent of the school’s students are white and 17 percent are Hispanic. The school is located in a neighborhood that’s only 10 percent white and 67 percent Hispanic. District schools within a 10-mile radius have, on average, a student population that’s 31 percent white and 51 percent Hispanic.

The BASIS charter schools, which consistently rank among the highest-performing public schools in the country, are particularly popular among Asian families. Nearly 28 percent of all BASIS students are Asian, although Asians only make up about 3 percent of the state’s K-12 public school students.

BASIS Chandler has the greatest percentage of Asian students of any BASIS school. Sixty-eight percent of the school’s population – 497 out of 731 students – are Asian, though the surrounding neighborhood is only 5 percent Asian. Overall, the combined student population at the BASIS schools is 57 percent white and 11 percent Hispanic.

BASIS representatives didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but said in an email that BASIS is “incredibly proud of the diverse nature” of its student population.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said public schools have historically had a strong connection to the community in which they’re located and that it’s difficult for charter schools to build that same connection when they don’t serve the students from around the area.

“When you have schools that may encourage folks of some ethnicities but not necessarily the ones in those communities, how connected is that school to the local neighborhood?” Morrill said. “What really is that charter school then to the local community?”

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