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In Arizona, charter school movement flourishes

In open market, academic results have been mixed

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post / November 22, 2009

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Here, where suburb meets desert, students are clambering amid the cacti to dig soil samples and take notes on flora and fauna. In an old movie complex in nearby Chandler, others are dissecting a Renaissance tract on human nature. On a South Phoenix campus with a National Football League connection, still others are learning how to pass a basket of bread and help a lady into her chair.

These are just three charter schools among a multitude in the most wide-open public education market in America.

Arizona’s flourishing charter school movement underscores the popular appeal of unfettered school choice and the creativity of some educational entrepreneurs. But the state also offers a cautionary lesson as President Obama pushes to dismantle barriers to charter schools elsewhere: It is difficult to promote quantity and quality at the same time.

Under a 1994 law that strongly favors charter schools, 500 of them operate in this state, teaching more than 100,000 students. Those totals account for a quarter of Arizona’s public schools and a tenth of its public school enrollment, giving charters here a larger market share than in any other state.

But a Stanford University research institute reported in June that Arizona charter students did not show as much academic progress as their peers in traditional public schools. Charter backers dispute the study’s methods and findings but agree that schools vary widely in quality.

“There are some excellent, excellent charter schools in Arizona,’’ said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. “There’s a good, strong cluster of really high-performing schools. There are a whole bunch that are mucking around [in the middle], and a big cluster that are not doing well.’’

With public funding, independent management, and no teachers union contracts, Arizona’s charter schools educate every which way: from the Montessori method to what might be called the No-Method method, from math academies to arts academies, from distance learning to hands-on learning.

They pop up in strip malls and abandoned churches. They compete for enrollment in suburbs and barrios and on Indian reservations.

“We’re the Wild West of charters, aren’t we?’’ said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers union.

A spin this month through some charter schools in metropolitan Phoenix found a school for the homeless shoehorned into an old Volkswagen dealership downtown; a new high school in Tempe that gives laptops to students so they can work on campus or off; a K-8 charter next door that escaped bankruptcy a few years ago and has hopscotched from site to site; and an accelerated math-science school on an old University of Phoenix campus in Chandler that caters to the high-tech community.

And in this affluent suburb, Basis Scottsdale is a top choice for parents and students who can’t get enough Advanced Placement courses. The school of about 600 in grades 5 through 12 requires all students to take at least six AP tests by the end of junior year. It pays for the testing and counts AP scores in final course grades, which is unusual.

Advocates say charter schools have influenced regular schools for the better. Critics call those claims overblown. An Arizona State University education professor, Gene Glass, said he could show a visitor “exciting stuff’’ in at least 50 regular public schools.

Through test scores, Arizona rates about 24 percent of charter schools as “excelling’’ or “highly performing.’’ About 37 percent of regular public schools win those marks.

“There’s nothing to learn from these charter schools,’’ Glass said. “There’s so much mythology about this.’’

Obama, however, contends that there is much to learn. His $4.35 billion Race to the Top education reform competition aims to encourage more high-quality charter schools, which the president said in July would “force the kind of experimentation and innovation that helps to drive excellence in every other aspect of life.’’

It remains unknown whether states will heed Obama’s call, though some have taken modest steps to ease charter restrictions. Eighteen years after Minnesota passed the first charter law, 4,700 charter schools are in operation nationwide.

But 10 states have no charter laws, and many have caps or give sole authorizing power to local school boards, which are often reluctant to approve a competitor.