Selected readings on US charter schools
Arizona is one of the nation’s leading states in letting families choose where and how their children are educated, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C., education think tank that ranks Arizona sixth in the country for school choice.
The state has crafted policies that allow children living in one district to enroll in another, provide scholarships for students with disabilities to attend private schools and allow charter schools to flourish.
The outcome is that many private schools, charter schools and traditional districts go beyond the basics, offering specialty programs that appeal to parents and students. However, the start-up costs, training and new materials can be challenging for cash-strapped schools. And students at specialty schools aren’t a magic bullet for improved state test scores.
Experts say the competition and push to offer specialized programs is fueled by increased student enrollment in charter schools and by state funding, which is based on enrollment. This school year, about 145,300 students, or 13 percent of Arizona students, attend one of the state’s 535 charter schools. About 4 percent of students nationally attended charter schools in the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
John Huppenthal, state superintendent of public instruction, said charters and open enrollment have caused traditional districts to offer more options to keep students and maintain state funding, because those students are no longer tied to a school by boundaries.
“It has created a more fluid environment,” Huppenthal said. “Almost every district is affected by a local charter school. If they don’t have choices, they will lose students.”
Districts from the southwest Valley to Paradise Valley have poured money into specialty programs that cater to niche interests in their communities.
Arizona was out front in the charter-school movement. The idea was to ease regulations to encourage innovation. The state Legislature approved charter schools in 1994, although the number was capped at 40. In 1999, that limit was erased and charter schools burgeoned.
“Generally, there has been about 8 percent growth annually over the past five years, or about 10,000 new students a year in terms of enrollment growth,” said Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
States that don’t regulate the number of charters, that allow multiple entities such as universities, districts or independent owners to open charters, and that have high charter-student enrollment intensify competition in the education market, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Education study that examined the impact of charters on traditional districts.
Arizona charter and district leaders say school choice isn’t inherently an “us vs. them” scenario but admit the state’s pro-school-choice policies have pushed change in programs and marketing. It’s not uncommon to see an advertising spot at movie theaters touting a local school’s program. In 2010, the Deer Valley Unified School District began advertising its specialty programs with banners on school buses that rolled through charter schools’ neighborhoods.
As districts have adapted, that innovation in turn has impacted charter schools.
“When districts adjusted, charters had to become more specialized,” said David Garcia, an associate professor and school-choice expert at Arizona State University
Specialty schools don’t necessarily bring major differences in performance, Garcia said. The specialized programs aren’t intended to maximize scores on state exams.
“They are thematic or programmatic by design, and the best of them would say that test scores are not the best way to measure their performance,” Garcia said.
Instead, the specialty programs allow students more flexible, focused education. That includes 17-year-old Hayleigh Daugherty, who is studying law at Arizona Agri Business and Equine Center, a charter school at Paradise Valley Community College.
“You see more schools, like charters, appealing to specialized interests like arts and veterinary interests. It’s appealing to kids that have a plan and know what degree they want to go into,” said Daugherty, a junior.
For parents, it means doing their homework on the education options available to their children. Peggy Lund chose to buy a home in the southwest Valley’s Litchfield Elementary District, in part, because of its top ranking from the state.
But then she began researching charter schools in the area.
“Charters generally had a few more elective options, such as learning a language,” Lund said, adding that they also advertised specialty programs more frequently.
Ultimately, Lund stayed in the district when officials opened a traditional academy this school year.
The Litchfield Elementary district launched the traditional academy to stem the loss of students.
The district lost 438 students in the 2011-12 school year, which represents about a $2.2 million decline in state funding, or about $5,000 per lost student.
That was the first year the district had begun to track exiting students. Surveys showed they were transferring to nearby charter schools.
The district responded with the traditional academy, which has attracted 150 students from outside the district. Students compete to attend the rigorous program that includes language immersion, classes taught above grade level and, in some classes, mixing students based on ability rather than age.
Still, the program is expensive for the cash-strapped district, which could not afford to implement the program at all 13 of its schools. District officials estimate the academy’s additional cost at $30,000 for materials and training.
But parent demand has the district planning to open traditional academies at two more schools next fall. The district expects to enroll 570 students in traditional academies next school year.
In north Phoenix and Glendale, the Deer Valley district has seen enrollment drop the past five years. Deer Valley officials are keeping tabs. “This year we developed a system to track the number of students who leave Deer Valley for a charter school and return to a Deer Valley from a charter school,” district spokeswoman Ashley Morris said.
District officials know as many as 12,000 students attend the 41 charter schools that fall within the sprawling district’s 367-mile boundary.
Since 2006, the district has sought to better compete with the creation of specialized programs in elementary and high schools, including career and technical education, aerospace studies and a course to teach Mandarin.
Innovation doesn’t always emerge from enrollment declines. Officials in the Paradise Valley Unified School District say charters haven’t hurt enrollment, but they did inspire the district to improve options. Elementary students can take science-integrated courses, while high-school students can attend the Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology at Paradise Valley High School, among other specialty options.
The district attracted more than 3,000 out-of-district students this school year. Students within the district also can attend a district school that better suits them. More than 7,650 district students attend schools outside their home boundaries.
“The idea behind the creation of charter schools is that competition forces every provider — public district, charter, private — to improve quality. We agree,” Paradise Valley district spokesman Marty Macurak said.
Some schools are reluctant to attribute innovation to competition.
The Phoenix Union High School District offers specialized science, art, traditional learning, aerospace, law and international-studies programs despite holding the lion’s share of student enrollment in its market, officials said.
“Most of our decisions for special programs or schools have been student-interest driven, or market-driven … to prepare students, who were traditionally underserved, for careers in medicine, science, research, so that they could fill positions in this new industry,” Phoenix Union spokesman Craig Pletenik said.
Some of the Peoria Unified School District’s 11 specialty programs are a decade old, although many others sprang up in more recent years amid enrollment drops.
“I don’t see it necessarily as competition. I think (specialized programs) are important in that students aren’t cookie cutters, being better able to service them is good,” said Linda Palles Thompson, a Peoria administrator.
Education experts say the competitive education market doesn’t tilt in favor of charters or districts because each face different challenges. Charter schools can limit enrollment and student-teacher ratio, which can reduce facilities and overhead costs inherent to districts that must teach all students in their boundaries, said Stacey Morley, director of policy development and government affairs for the Arizona Department of Education.
However, charters aren’t funded by local property taxes and are subject to closure if they fail to perform or budget money properly. Charter schools also are often limited by smaller facilities that cannot accommodate athletics or other extracurricular activities.
Ultimately, Morley said a competitive educational market benefits students by providing more educational environments tailored to specific needs.
Source: The Town Talk – by Eddi Trevizo, The Arizona Republic