I find myself amused by a new policy paper out from the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, which asserts Arizona charter schools spent more on administrative costs in the 2014-15 school year than traditional district schools. The paper decries a lack of administrative efficiency and spending accountability, calling large charter networks the “the worst offenders,” and singling out charter leader BASIS as the worst of the worst. (The Grand Canyon Institute is the same august think tank that in 2013 released a borderline-nonsensical paper questioning Arizona’s competitive tax policy.)
Now The Republic’s E.J. Montini is getting in on the act, trumpeting the report’s findings. Montini is hardly a school choice champion, so his opinion here is a predictable one.
But what’s missing from this hard-hitting exposé and analysis is the answer to central questions: Are charter schools achieving positive educational results for Arizona kids? Are taxpayers getting good bang for their buck based on student achievement outcomes? If they are, isn’t that what matters?
I look to outputs as a measure of fiscal prudence and positive return on investment. Focusing on the inputs while remaining blind to outcomes makes this paper better suited for publication in The Onion, under the headline, “Recent report says, ‘Who cares about results!’”
After all, we’re not talking about unchecked, out-of-control spending. I know of no one, on the far left or far right of the political spectrum – including the authors of this report – who would say that K-12 schools are flush with cash. This is one reason the Arizona Chamber enthusiastically supports Proposition 123, which will inject $3.5 billion new dollars into K-12 education over the next decade.
Every school has to make difficult decisions about how best to apply dollars with the aim of achieving the highest level of success for their students. If a school is turning out high achieving students, that tells me they are handling their resources well. In the case of Arizona charters, they – like traditional district schools – receive funding from the state’s general fund. They are required to submit annual financial reports to the Department of Education and, unlike their traditional district counterparts, are not able to tap the local tax base through bond and override elections.
So, are charter schools achieving success for students? A look at two recent measures – National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and AzMerit scores – would say yes. In fact, Arizona’s charter students outperformed nearly every other state’s public school students on the 2015 NAEP. The Arizona charter students’ scores on eighth grade mathematics, for instance, nearly topped Massachusetts, which is the highest scoring of the 50 states and is known for its exceptional education system. (My friend Dr. Matt Ladner has written about extensively about the success of Arizona’s charter students.)
Then there’s AzMerit, Arizona’s own assessment tool, on which Arizona charter students outperformed the state pass rate average in English Language Arts and Math by 5-12 percentage points in every grade level.
Arizona’s per-pupil investment is less than half of what Massachusetts spends on its K-12 public school students, and Arizona’s charter schools receive less funding per pupil than many traditional district schools in the state. Yet Arizona’s charter students lead the pack in achievement among peers in the state and around the country. Faced with these facts, it’s hard to argue charter school operators as a whole are doing a disservice to the taxpayer in handling their resources.
Taxpayers should demand accountability in outcomes in student learning.
The Arizona Chamber, with A for Arizona leading the way, believes money should follow success and be spent on initiatives and institutions that give more students access to an excellent education. That’s why you’ll see efforts to put additional resources toward Career and Technical Education (CTE), Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-level coursework, and the expansion and replication of excelling schools at the top of our agenda.
We know these efforts are far more productive toward advancing student success than criticizing a sector of Arizona’s educational ecosystem that is producing great results for our state.