Glenn Hamer

A column on today’s Arizona Republic opinion page makes clear the stark differences in thought over how to improve education in the United States.

One camp believes increased choice is a critical component of any school improvement effort. Another camp, like the one occupied by Arizona School Boards Association executive director Tim Ogle, believes increased choice “fails an unacceptable number of student.”

Put me firmly in the first camp.

The well-respected Council on Foreign Relations just announced in a recent report, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” that America’s education system poses a national security risk. One can understand why. Only seventy five percent of students graduate on time and only about seventy percent of high school graduates are fit to serve the military.

American high school students are being outperformed by Slovenian high school students in math assessments. China graduates 500,000 engineers each year compared to 150,000 in the U.S. And the quality of the Chinese engineer is improving.

In the toughest economy since the Great Depression, we have had numerous conversations around the Arizona Chamber board table about the lack of qualified workers.

Even in this challenging economy, jobs are available for individuals who complete high school and receive additional training, particularly in a STEEM area. That’s not a typo. In addition to science, technology, engineering, and math, I am adding an “E”for “English” after receiving dozens of cover letters from university graduates at a grammar level below that of my second-grade daughter.

After hearing the constant drumbeat of negative education stories, it seems almost impossible to imagine that our education system could be turned around. But, consider that just 20 years ago reducing crime in urban areas like New York City was considered to be out of reach. Then, the combination of bold leadership from Mayor Rudy Giuliani and policy changes like truth-in-sentencing reforms that kept violent criminals incarcerated, paved the way for the Big Apple to significantly reduce crime.

Or recall that there was once a sense that welfare programs couldn’t be fixed, until Gov. Tommy Thompson and Wisconsin passed bold reforms that were copied in other states and finally enacted in Washington, D.C. by President Clinton and a Republican Congress.

We can dramatically improve education in this country. After a recent re-screening of Waiting for Superman it hit me. We already know what reform will restore our education system: charter schools. The question is no longer, “What works?” The question is now, “How do we replicate those models that have already proven to be successful?”

I define charters as schools that receive public dollars in exchange for being held accountable for the results of their students. We need to double down and make sure that schools that are working can be replicated across the country. We need to make sure that every child in America has the opportunity to attend a well-functioning charter school so there will be no more scenes of young Americans depending on the bounce of a lottery ball to determine their future.

Arizona was at the cutting edge of the charter school movement when lawmakers in 1994 passed legislation that allowed for charter schools to operate in the state. Today, there are more than 520 charter schools in Arizona, with the number of students attending those schools having reached 135,000.

Over the past three academic years, enrollment in traditional Arizona public schools has declined 3.7 percent while enrollment in charter schools increased by 31 percent. Charter schools now account for 11.6 percent of total public school enrollment.

Nationally, over two million students attend 5,637 charter schools located in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Thanks to the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top program, the future for charter schools appears bright.

Despite strong growth in the number of charter schools and students, the demand continues to far exceed the supply. Last August, a local Scottsdale charter school held an online enrollment session for the 2012-2013 academic year beginning at 6:00 am. By 6:02 am, there were no more slots available.

In the 20 or so years of public education reforms, certain networks of schools are clearly performing at an elite level. At least two of the networks are in Arizona, the BASIS Schools and the Great Hearts Academies.

As I have written about in the past, the BASIS schools are truly spectacular. Dr. Michael and Olga Block now have six schools in Arizona and have plans to open three additional Arizona schools and one D.C. school over the next two years. These schools pick up academic awards on a regular basis. The Great Heart Academies are also growing rapidly with impressive results.

Outside of Arizona, there are a couple of networks that have been particularly successful. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools featured in Waiting for Superman and in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, are now operating in 20 states and the District of Columbia. These schools have extended the training time for at-risk students with excellent results.

While Arizona had led the way, I would submit we can do more. We need per-pupil funding formulas that attract these top-performing out-of-state schools to open up shop in Arizona. There is something wrong with our formula if we are not able to attract some of the excellent out-of-state chains. While the home-grown schools are excellent, we should want more choice.

As pointed out in the Council on Foreign Relations report, “Enhanced choice and competition, in an environment of equitable resource allocation, will fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.”

Increased choice means better prepared kids, and a better Arizona.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry