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Arizona Charter Schools Fall Far Short, Study Finds

by Richard Gilman

The news out of Stanford is distressingly bad for education reform in Arizona.

Charter schools – the centerpiece of reform – have a slight positive impact nationally, according to a highly anticipated national study, but a decidedly negative impact in Arizona.

The report comes in the midst of a determined five-year effort by Arizona’s charter school operators to clean up their act.

The just-completed study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University is an update on its first report on charters done in 2009.  The first study covered 16 states, including Arizona.  The 2013 report (based on data from the 2010-2011 school year) covers 26 states, plus the District of Columbia and New York City.

The report expresses “outcomes” in terms of learning days that charter school students gain or lose in a school year in comparison to closely matched peers in traditional public schools.

Charter students across all 26 states were found to gain eight learning days in reading versus the students who were judged to be their “virtual twins” in district schools.  The study showed no difference between the two in math results.

Arizona, however, did not fare nearly so well.

Among Lowest in Study

In reading, the state’s charter school students lost 22 learning days versus their direct peers who are enrolled in traditional schools.  In math, they lost 29 days.

Those results put Arizona among the lowest in the study.  In reading, the comparison between charters and traditional schools came out worse in only two states.  In math, just five states were worse.

The poor showing undermines the enormous emphasis and resources that Arizona has poured into charter schools.  They represent a quarter of Arizona’s schools, far greater than any other state.  The percentage of students enrolled in charters – 14 percent and growing – is greater than any other place but the District of Columbia.

Moreover, state leaders position charters as an attractive alternative for parents who want to do better for their children.  But charters, at least Arizona’s version of them, clearly have not been the panacea some think them to be.

The report for charters was marginally positive for charters nationwide.  But no matter how CREDO looked at it, Arizona looked bad.

Every which way, the state ended up where one doesn’t want to be – in the lower left quadrant of the analysis.  Arizona is one of the few states in which charters did worse than traditional schools in 2009 and then fell short again in 2013, in both reading and math.  Arizona is also one of the few that scored poorly both on the nation’s report card and in charter school performance, again in both reading and math.

Eileen Sigmund, chief executive officer of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, argues though that one shouldn’t paint all charters with the same brush.

‘U’ Shape of Performance

She says Arizona’s charters have a “U-shape” of performance.   Meaning, she said, there are “some great schools” and “some that aren’t doing what they are supposed to.”

The effort to fix this started late in 2007.  Professional staff, including Sigmund, was brought on to run the charter association.  And the “authorizer” of most charters, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, began tightening the screws.

“The hammer is coming down,” Sigmund contended in an interview.

It is more difficult for a new charter to get approval.  In the last review cycle, Sigmund says, charters were awarded to only nine of 41 applicants.

And it is more difficult for them to stay open if they’re failing at their mission.  The initial 15-year review period has been shortened to five.  Only about 50 percent of those reviewed get a clean bill of health.  The others must submit a performance management plan.

Sigmund says the new approach has three components.  Encourage the best charter school operators to open more schools.  Coach the schools that are struggling to improve.  Close the failures.   (In 2010-2011, according to the association website, 17 charters of the 640 on the state database either surrendered their contract or had it revoked.)

Trends Didn’t Help Arizona

The CREDO results are the more distressing because some of the national findings should work to Arizona’s advantage – and apparently didn’t.

On a national basis, certain subgroups that are prevalent in Arizona – students in poverty and English Language Learners – got the most out of charter schools.

For instance, students in poverty gained 14 more learning days in reading and 22 more in math than their poor counterparts in traditional schools.

Hispanic students in charter schools didn’t do quite as well versus their peers.  Overall they had seven fewer learning days in both reading and math. But the portion of them who are English Language Learners had much better luck.  They gained a whopping 50 days in reading and 43 in math.

And Arizona Didn’t Help Trends

The study shows, however, that Arizona’s charter students are more white and less Hispanic or ELL than Arizona’s overall student population.

White charter students fared much more poorly.  Nationwide they trailed their white peers in reading gains by 14 days and in math by 50 days.

When I asked a CREDO spokesperson if less success for whites might have pulled down Arizona’s results, she informed me I had it reversed.  Her email stated that “outcomes in places like Arizona” pulled down the national results for whites.


The state seems to have wised up to the shortcomings.  We have to hope this will allow charter students to wise up, too.


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