Originally Published: August 7, 2001 7:10 p.m.
PRESCOTT – When the Legislature approved charter school operation in 1994, few suspected that Arizona would go on to lead the nation in the number of these alternative, independent schools receiving public money.
Soon it did. And now, according to Lyle Skillen, the state's charter school liaison, 303 charter holders operate at 430 sites statewide.
While most are in Maricopa County, Yavapai County has 38. About half of those are in the tri-city area, and indications are that more are on the way.
Why so many?
Skillen maintains that it's because The Center for Education Reform, a national organization for those working toward fundamental changes in their schools, ranked Arizona's law tops in the nation.
"It provides for multiple sponsoring entities – the State Board of Education, the State Board for Charter Schools or a district," said Skillen, "and we give all the funding that the children generate to the schools."
Like district schools, charters receive about $4,900 in state money annually per pupil. Unlike district schools, though, they are exempt from certain regulations. One difference is that charters need not hire state-certified teachers, al-though many of them do.
The Legislature's intent was to give people freedom of choice and to improve pupil achievement. Thus, any Arizona student, including those with special needs, in Grades K-12 may attend charter, instead of district, schools.
Yavapai County's proliferation of charter schools was slow to start but exploded a few years ago. Several have opened this past year alone, hoping to lure some of the county's estimated 23,000 school-age children onto their rolls.
Yavapai County School Superintendent Paul N. Street maintains that roughly 11 percent of county students are at charters.
He believes Yavapai County has so many charter schools because it's been so easy to start them, and with continued growth in the county, people figure there's still room for one more.
"Also, there are those out there who feel that the public schools are not turning out very good product and parents who don't like what all they perceive goes on there, and so they shop around for a school that's more to their liking," he said.
Other reasons Street gave are that some parents want their children in a smaller school, which they believe will be safer.
Further, some of the county's home schoolers find charters more in keeping with their philosophies than public schools.
Contrary to the statewide picture that shows charter school performance on standardized tests as being very high or very low, local charter schools' standardized test scores run the gamut.
Educators trace lower scores to those with at-risk students or pupils with interests like the performing arts, and higher scores to schools focusing on academics.
"When I look at, generally speaking, test scores of some of the charters, they're all doing average or better," said Street. "Overall, a high percentage of them are doing well. Parents seem to be very pleased, because there's not a lot of movement from charter school to charter school or from charter back into public schools."
Street dispelled the popular myth that Yavapai charter holders are mostly out-of-state entrepreneurs.
"Probably two-thirds of the charters were started in this county by teachers who already lived here when that law was passed, and for them it was just an opportunity," he said. "It's not like all of these outsiders are seeing the potential and moving in to cash in on it."
Some of those were teachers weary of district bureaucracies.
"They just want to teach, and so if they run their own school, set it up their own way, they can do what they really want to do without all the bureaucratic hassles of dealing with 'the system'," Street said.
Janine Bennett, a local teacher with 11 years' experience, had another reason. In 1999, she founded the Painted Pony Ranch nonprofit charter school after seeking education for her daughter Kelsea, then 5.
"My concern was beyond just receiving a good basic academic foundation," she said. "I felt that children's emotional needs were not being met in traditional schools and wanted to have a small school with a family atmosphere where every student is important."
Bennett emphasizes personalized instruction to help students master state standards. Also, the K-8 school is on a two-acre historical ranch complete with a horse, a goat, pigs and other livestock. Aides take the 125 students, two at a time, to care for them.
"By learning respect for nature, children learn respect for each other and themselves," Bennett said.
Generally, students report enjoying the fresh approach that charter schools offer.
Two recent graduates of Kestrel High School, Tonya Linn Ketker, 22, and Jason Michael Huse, 17, credit the school's experiential curriculum and caring instructors for their success.
"I can't believe I'm done, but I am, and I'm happy as a clam," Ketker said at commencement this past June. "I'm so excited; I wrote a speech for the ceremony about my experiences and about Kestrel, a wonderful school that really helped me a lot."
Huse earned high marks and graduated a year ahead of schedule.
"It's been really hard to finish, but it was easier to complete classes here, where a lot of the classes are outdoors," he said.
"Basically, I went from not even knowing if I wanted to finish school to graduating."
Such comments are nothing new to Street, who says students and parents like the alternatives. And, overall, he maintains that charter schools are a good idea.
"I think the competition has been healthy for school districts because, prior to this concept, they were the only thing in town outside of private schools," he said. "If you didn't have the money to put your kids in a private school, they went to the neighborhood school."
With the advent of charters, district schools have to attract and hold students by offering a broader range of services. Even then, some children stumble on the path toward graduation.
"Charter schools are schools of choice for a reason," said Skillen.
"They help children who aren't succeeding in traditional schools."
(Tomorrow: New opportunities for specialization, second chances)
Contact Louise Koniarski at email@example.com.