Just because it’s a charter school doesn’t mean it’s a better school

For the last decade, many Arizonans have come to believe “charter” is synonymous with “better.”

Our public education system has consistently ranked among the worst in the nation, while media reports have highlighted some successful Arizona charter schools bucking the trends.

But now we learn that a large percentage of Arizona’s charter schools aren’t so great after all. In fact, after evaluating 78 charter school operators in this state, 27 were put on probation and four were denied new contracts. That means greater than one-third of those schools had failing performance rates.

Does this mean Arizona’s school choice movement should be declared a failure? No, but it does dispel a couple of myths.

Myth #1: More choices mean better choices.

For more than a decade, Arizona has promoted school choice and the creation of charter schools as a means to improve Arizona’s education system. The belief held that parents, when given a choice, would choose only the best schools to enroll their children in and the worst schools would be forced to close.

But that philosophy has not held true and having the highest percentage of charter schools in the nation has not helped Arizona turn around its dismal student performance scores. Just this week a national education report ranked Arizona 44th among states and gave it a below average grade on education policies and programs.

And now State Representative Jack Harper wants to take that philosophy even further by proposing a change to Arizona’s constitution to allow school vouchers. Again, this is using the flawed logic that more choices mean better choices.

Myth #2: Decreased regulation means better results.

Fewer regulations were supposed to make charter schools easier to operate, freeing up resources to focus on student performance. For example, charter schools, unlike district schools, can cap enrollment thereby limiting the number of students per classroom. Charters also deal with a significantly smaller proportion of disadvantaged and learning disabled students than district schools, making specialization easier.

But the lack of regulations hasn’t generated the large numbers of superior schools legislators predicted. Instead, poor oversight by understaffed and underfunded state regulators has resulted in the misuse of taxpayer dollars and continued poor performance by a significant portion of charters.

Regulation, particularly when it concerns taxpayer dollars, isn’t always bad. Government oversight isn’t always unnecessary.

Though charter schools are not the answer some had hoped they’d be, they still have a useful place in our state. The competition among schools has, in some cases, propelled districts to search for more innovative ways to educate children. And parents, such as myself, have appreciated having options.

But instead of focusing solely on school choice as a means to fix a broken education system, lawmakers should concentrate on finding exemplary methods of reform that can be duplicated at both district and charter schools.

It’s obvious that school choice alone will not solve our ills and the marketplace will not always weed out the bad apples. It’s time to make decisions based on results versus assumptions, and time to put less of an emphasis on choice and more of an emphasis on quality alternatives.

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