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Wed, Oct. 16

Talk of the Town<BR>Charter schools give parents more choices

The Arizona State Charter Board recently adopted new rules for monitoring charter schools. The changes came as a result of criticisms from the state auditor, who argued that the board was lax in its oversight of the state's nearly 500 charter schools. But the auditor has provided little evidence that more paperwork will actually improve the quality of new charter schools.

One of the main criticisms of the charter board is that it focuses on the academic substance of school proposals, rather than their financial and construction plans. Indeed, in some cases the board approved schools not ready to open. But does that mean the charter board is failing to protect parents from unscrupulous or incompetent charter operators? As a former public servant in the Clinton administration and an academic who has published one scholarly book and five other refereed journal pieces on Arizona charter schools, I find the latest critique of the Arizona Charter Board disappointing in three respects.

First, critics seem to prefer the charter process in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York, where chartering a school is a highly complex process requiring thousands of dollars in fees to lawyers, consultants, and even politicians. In those states, only businesses with deep pockets, or those who are politically connected, are able to charter. In contrast, more than 70 percent of Arizona charter campuses were started by teachers, social workers, parents or school administrators – people who know and care about education.

Second, whatever the approval process, the vast majority of Arizona charter schools have solid track records. Roughly 10 percent of Arizona charter schools that opened have closed. That's equivalent to the national average.

More important, of the 98 studies on charter school performance by leading educational and research institutions, including RAND and Columbia University, 90 percent indicate that charter schools perform better than regular public schools. This June, for instance, Manhattan Institute scholars found that "charter schools serving the general student population outperformed nearby regular public schools on math tests by 3 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile [and] on reading tests by 2 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile."

In Arizona, research shows that students learn more at Arizona charters than in regular district schools, even though charters spend nearly 25 percent less per pupil and receive no capital funding from the state. Surveys also show that Arizona charters have superior parent satisfaction. The latest state parent satisfaction survey found that more than 67 percent of charter school parents give their schools an A or A+ – about twice the percentage for traditional public schools.

Third, as my team has shown in refereed articles in Teachers College Record, Policy Studies Journal, and in a Brookings Institution collection, Arizona district schools react to charter competition by improving. Likewise, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that "charter competition made Arizona public schools improve their productivity relative to their own initial trends." Public schools not facing charter school competition raised their annual improvement in achievement on NAEP scores by 1.4 and 1.39 percentile points in fourth grade reading and math respectively when charter school competition was introduced, even though their previous rate of change in achievement had been 0.6 percentile points lower than other public schools not facing charter competition.

Arizona's flexible charter law gives the state's parents options unheard of here in Pennsylvania, where school districts routinely spend more than $13,000 per child. My Pennsylvania district spends more than $19,000 per child, yet parents are not allowed to visit the classroom and principals seldom return phone calls. When my neighbors and I dared ask about developing a Montessori option, we were dismissed with, "We're a public school: we don't do that," and, "Is there something wrong with your children?"

Some of the charter board's new regulations, such as stricter background checks, are probably harmless. But the most important form of regulation for schools is market discipline, which means giving parents the ability to choose where their children go to school. Charter schools help to give parents a choice, and overwhelming evidence shows that Arizona's charter schools improve student achievement.

Robert Maranto, Ph.D., teaches political science at Villanova University and is an associate scholar at the Goldwater Institute.

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