Arizona ranks third in the nation for its support and oversight of charter schools, but it needs to do a better job in educating parents and the public about these privately operated public schools, according to a national survey released Tuesday.
Arizona also needs to improve the relationship between school districts and charter schools, and be more willing to close charter schools that are not doing a good job, the report's authors found.
The study, conducted by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, reviewed charter sponsoring boards in 23 states and the District of Columbia. It gave Arizona:
- B+ for state policies for charter schools — ranked first in the nation.
- B for the practices of charter school sponsors — ninth best in the nation.
- B overall — third best in the nation.
“Arizona is doing well. . . . But there's a ways to go,” said Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute.
Arizona's grades are based on surveys of 115 charter operators, 17 charter observers and seven representatives of sponsoring boards in 2002. In Arizona, charter schools can be sponsored by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the Arizona Board of Education or school districts.
The study only looks at the job charter sponsors are doing; it does not address the performance of charter schools.
“Having goals, submitting to audits and filing progress reports might be good things to do, but the charter school movement promised better education for kids,” said Gene Glass, a professor at ASU's College of Education. “We can't ignore this unfulfilled promise when the final grades are assigned.”
No state received an A overall. But in individual categories, Arizona received several A’s and a few poor marks as well.
Arizona's worst mark was an F for failing to seek charter applicants "to meet market gaps."
Mary Gifford, a charter consultant and member of the state charter board, said it's not the sponsoring board's job to solicit charters for schools that would serve target populations, such as high school students or poor children.
“The marketplace is a better regulator,” Gifford said. “If there's a market for it, there will be a charter school.”
Arizona received excellent grades in some areas for which charter school sponsors have been widely criticized in the past: An A+ in financial audits oversight and an A in requiring clear provisions for special-education students.
The high marks were good news to Arizona's former state schools chief, Lisa Graham Keegan, now CEO of Education Leaders Council, a Washington, D.C.-based school reform organization. During her tenure as state superintendent of public instruction, Keegan was often credited with the successes — and the failures — of Arizona's charter schools.
On Tuesday, Keegan said the state's excellent grades in the Morrison report “are a reflection of when the (charter) movement was young . . . we tightened the rules.”
But like the study's authors, Keegan said she also sees some room for improvement.
For example, Arizona got an A in nearly every category for what it requires of charter schools through performance contracts — but a C+ for having clear consequences when charter schools do not meet outcomes. The study also gave Arizona's charter school sponsors a C- for making difficult decisions related to revoking charters.
Arizona got a D- in acceptance of charter schools by school districts.
Chuck Essigs, an adviser to the superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, said it's only natural that the relationship between charters and districts would be somewhat difficult.
“We're competitors,” Essigs said, adding that state legislators show favoritism toward charter schools. “As we look at the state budget, (district) schools are looking to be cut in a number of areas, but there is not one penny of cuts to charter schools.”
Arizona also got a D+ in educating parents and the public about charter schools. Many people mistakenly think charter schools are private schools, the study's authors said. Charter schools are privately run, but publicly funded and free to any student.
“It's such a difficult idea to get your arms around,” Keegan said.