When I read the recent Cronkite News Service article “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools on firm ground” I wanted to rename it “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools still serve only 15 percent of the state’s students.” That’s when I realized how pointless this debate is. You know, you tout charter school offerings and performance and I come back with “yeah, but charters cherry pick their students and don’t have to put up with the same level of transparency and accountability.” Enough already!
How about we try something different? First, we recognize that charter schools weren’t originally designed to compete with community district schools, but rather, “to allow teachers the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn.” Except for the part of allowing “teachers the opportunity” some charter schools have mostly done that. Take BASIS schools for example. Known for their rigor and academic success, these schools have an in-depth enrollment process that includes a placement test, they push their students hard, and they require significant involvement by parents who are likely already more engaged with their child’s education than the average. These factors no doubt contributed to BASIS Scottsdale ranking #2 high school in the nation for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report. There are takeaways from the BASIS model that would likely improve academic success at some district schools, but their high attrition rate is proof enough that it won’t work for the vast majority of students. District schools can’t “attrit” students – they must educate all.
Unfortunately, our system doesn’t encourage schools to learn from one another. Open enrollment and school choice force schools to compete for the students that bring the dollars they need to exist. This competition comes at a cost. Today’s schools must spend valuable education dollars branding themselves and marketing to attract students. Larger districts now have marketing and public relations people on staff, but there’s no new money to cover these costs. The reality is that in the existing climate of “no new taxes” there is only so much education money to go around and adding more schools to the mix can only dilute the quality for the majority of our students. Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools. We need to revise an antiquated school funding model that simply “counts noses” rather than considering student demographics, performance and other measures.
We also must find a way to give our schools more stability in their funding. Our school administrators are professionals and they can make wise adjustments when they know what’s coming. Problem is, education funding has been volatile and unpredictable and even that which is mandated by voters and adjudicated by the courts cannot be counted on. And although charters complain that they can’t go out for bonds and overrides, the $1,100 (in 2014) more per pupil funding they receive is much more stable than the locally controlled funding districts have the option to seek. An analysis from the AZ Republic showed that from 2002 to 2012 69 percent of school districts had not issued bonds (or were shot down by voters when they did) and 73 percent hadn’t gone out for capital overrides or couldn’t win voter’s approval. Of course, school choice also supports instability as when money flows from a district school to a charter; the costs do not go down proportionately at the district school. Rather, the district school cannot shift their costs fast enough as students and revenue leave and the fixed costs for the principal, utilities, building debt, etc. remain often resulting in larger class sizes and cuts to academic programming.
The Payson RoundUp was way on-point recently: “We’re dismayed that Arizona seems more intent on nurturing for-profit charter schools than in adequately supporting our existing public schools. It makes little sense for the state to spend public money supporting a privately operated school that will result in shutting down a school already paid for by those same taxpayers.” They also asked why if the Legislature believes that giving free rein to charters and paving the way for them to thrive is good for our kids, why didn’t they just do that for our district schools? Great question!
So instead of revisiting the 2008 initiative to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 K-12 districts, maybe we should look at whether encouraging the establishment of 600-plus new charter schools (many of them run by for-profit companies) made Arizona’s public education system more cost-effective in general. Although Arizona Charter Schools Association CEO Eileen Sigmund claims that less than 5 percent of Arizona charters operate through for-profit companies, I was unable to verify her claim. In 2012, Arizona had 108 schools managed by for-profit EMOs, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported at least 30 percent of Arizona’s charter schools were run by for-profit EMOs in 2013 and in 2014, Arizona had close to 204 for-profit companies managing the state’s charter schools. In fact, the national trend is for charter schools to be increasingly managed by for-profit EMOs and it is estimated as much as 40 percent of all charter schools are operated by EMOs and account for close to 45 percent of all charter school enrollments. These statistics matter because when decisions are made by for-profit EMOs, they are often made at out-of-state corporate headquarters with profit, not students, in mind such as when they divert higher amounts of funding to administration. BASIS schools for example, directed close to $2,000 per pupil for administrators in 2014 while Peoria Unified School District only spent $732 per pupil for administration. Additionally, EMOs take advantage of the virtually non-existent requirements for accountability and transparency as well as favorable tax codes.
Ultimately, you can’t get the right result going after it for the wrong reason. I have to believe that if all we really cared about all our students receiving the best education possible, we could make it happen. In fact, if we only didn’t care who got the credit, we would be light years ahead. We know what we are doing now is more profit- and politics-based than truly pupil-based. I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t that complicated. Of course, doing the right thing rarely is.