Robert Maranto

18 Years of Charter Schools in Arizona: Now We Know

Posted on January 26, 2012 | Author: Robert Maranto
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To celebrate National School Choice Week, the Goldwater Institute is highlighting five key areas of education reform. Today's focus is charter schools. For more information about the Institute's groundbreaking work in this area, visit our Education Reform page.

When my wife, April, and I first studied charter schools in Arizona back in 1997, they had 222 campuses, a 3.3 percent market share, and heaps of criticism from folks who had never set foot inside of one. Fifteen years later they have 524 campuses, a 12 percent market share, and still plenty of critics.

Charter schoolPerhaps the most important change of the last 15 years, though, is that now we know. We know that charter school teachers feel more empowered than district school teachers. We know charter parents like their schools. Contrary to a popular myth that charters are more segregated than traditional schools, a study conducted by some of my colleagues at the University of Arkansas found that there are only small differences in the level of overall student segregation.

We know that charters spend less, and do about the same on student academic growth—with the dramatic exceptions of some Arizona charters where student achievement levels are among the highest in the country. Nationally, charters are funded at a level that is slightly more than half of what traditional schools receive, according to the Center for Education Reform ($6,585 compared to $10,771). In Arizona, charters receive 20 percent less than traditional schools. We know that charter competition has generally led traditional public schools to be more respectful of parents and teachers.

We know that charter schools like Mesa Arts Academy, Sonoran Science Academy, and the upstart Phoenix Collegiate prove that disadvantaged kids can learn. We know that charters like Tempe Prep and Basis prove a demand for world-class academics. We know that the Charter School of Sedona proves that teachers can run a public school, and do a darn good job of it.

But thinking back on the studies I've read and the schools I've seen, I keep coming back to one scene. In an arts-oriented charter school, a recent immigrant told me how much her life had improved since leaving her well-regarded district school. At her charter school, she wasn't bullied for her accent or appearance. She no longer cried every day when she went to school; she no longer cried every day when she came home.

She is what the charter movement is all about. Traditional public schools do a good job serving many kids, but in many instances, they cannot serve that girl, or kids like a teenage me, who need a different option. In Arizona, her parents have 524 chances to find it.

Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Learn more:

​Goldwater Institute: Basis v. Horne (Charter school autonomy case)

Goldwater Institute: Comparison of Traditional Public and Charter Schools

Goldwater Institute: Does Charter School Attendance Improve Test Scores?

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