In case you missed it, this piece by Glenn Hamer and co-author Eileen Sigmund ran in Sunday’s Republic.
On Tuesday, Arizona marks the 20-year anniversary of the state’s most momentous reform in public education.
With a stroke of his pen, Gov. Fife Symington signed into law House Bill 2002, bringing charter-school education to Arizona and ushering in a new era of school choice for parents and accountability for schools.
The two decades that followed haven’t always been smooth. Too many subpar charter schools opened in the early years and were allowed to linger for too long, and the charter movement hasn’t moved quickly enough to fill the vacuum in areas of the state — especially the inner city and tribal lands — where quality schools remain in short supply.
We’ll have more on both issues in a moment.
First, let’s acknowledge the fundamental success of charter schools in giving parents and families what they want.
By design, charters are more nimble than their district counterparts. Less weighed down by bureaucracy and red tape, charters have the flexibility to hire teachers who are masters in their field but may lack strict certification, and they can move quickly to implement STEM-based or any other new curriculum.
Put simply, charter schools are better able to respond to the marketplace. And the marketplace has responded overwhelmingly to them.
How do we know? Just look at the numbers. In 1995, the original 67 charter schools opened in Arizona. Fast-forward to the just completed 2013-14 academic year and that number has exploded by nearly ten-fold to more than 600 charter schools serving 185,000 students across our state. Talk about people voting with their feet!
Families are streaming into charter schools to the point that charters now account for nearly one in three public schools in Arizona — the highest percentage of any state in the country.
Don’t just look at charter schools for evidence of their popularity. Consider district schools themselves. They are — for multiple reasons, some financial and some academic — sponsoring charter schools of their own or converting existing schools to charter status. These districts are responding to pressure from parents who want what charters provide: individualized instruction and more highly specialized learning.
Of course, the most important measure of school performance isn’t enrollment. It’s student learning.
In 2013, 21 of Arizona’s top 30 public schools were charters, according to rankings released by the Arizona Department of Education. That same year, eight of Arizona’s top 10 public high schools by average SAT score were charters. Most recently, a review by U.S. News & World Report recognized a pair of Arizona’s BASIS charter high schools as among the 10 best in the entire country, along with an outstanding district school: University High in Tucson.
This doesn’t mean every charter school is meeting expectations. Too many continue to fall short of what their students need and deserve. But know this: The days are numbered for these underperforming schools.
In 2013, Arizona had five F-rated charter schools; the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools forced three to close, and the other two closed on their own.
Just this month, the same board denied charter renewals for eight D-rated schools — pending their state-issued scores for this year — and essentially put six C-rated schools on probation, giving them 45 days to issue a comprehensive plan to improve student achievement. We can debate any single decision, but the overall message is clear: Arizona charter schools are being held accountable.
Meanwhile, efforts are accelerating to replicate our very best charter schools.
Legacy Traditional Schools, founded in 2007, has expanded to eight campuses totaling 8,000 students across metro Phoenix, Pinal County and northwest Tucson.
One of the state’s original charter schools, Kingman Academy of Learning, has grown from a K-6 elementary with 200 students to four campuses educating 1,400 K-12 students.
Great Hearts Academy now has nearly 20 schools and close to 10,000 students on waiting lists.
What do Legacy Traditional, Kingman Academy and Great Hearts have in common? Each is A-rated, has expanded in response to strong community demand and stands as clear evidence of all that is possible today in Arizona public education.
Urban Phoenix is the focus of the next critical chapter in Arizona’s charter-school movement. For too many students in too many inner-city neighborhoods, access to an exceptional education remains out of reach. Only 6 percent of Phoenix students in high-poverty classrooms are attending an A-rated school — a failure of both district and charter schools that we know is disproportionately borne by poor and minority students.
This has to end.
We’re tackling the problem head-on with New Schools for Phoenix, an initiative through which private funding is being raised to recruit and train great leaders and launch A-rated schools in the neighborhoods where they’re needed most.
Twenty-five great schools serving 12,500 inner-city students by 2020 — that’s the goal. Ambitious? Sure. Given the stakes for this city and state, we can’t afford anything less.
The good news is, the initial two pilot schools for New Schools for Phoenix are already open, and the first five official schools under the initiative will begin operating in August. This is happening.
Twenty years ago, the Arizona charter-school movement began with the idea that parents know best, competition makes us stronger, and there has to be a better way.
We now know these principles to be true. And the proof lies not in statistics nor letter grades but rather in the fact that the once-heated debate over charter schools is over. Choice in public education has become an Arizona birthright.
Our test now is to take the lessons learned over the last two decades, summon the political will and apply them in order to fully make good on the promises made to this state and its students a generation ago. We’re well on our way.
Eileen Sigmund is president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association and manager of New Schools for Phoenix. Glenn Hamer is vice chairman of the Arizona Charter Schools Association and president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry.