The Arizona Republic
Everything you need to know about charter schools.
Charter schools need transparency and accountability. But let’s not lose sight of how they function and why Arizona families choose them.
Public charter schools are under scrutiny these days. Scrutiny is good. It offers an opportunity to examine the value public charter schools provide and the choice 185,000 Arizona families make when it comes to the learning environment that best meets the needs of their children.
This scrutiny creates a chance for a conversation about ways to better publicly demonstrate the accountability measures already in place for public charter schools.
It also encourages the public charter school sector to coalesce around improvements that prevent a few outliers from detracting from the whole.
That includes a budget request to the Arizona State Legislature from Ashley Berg, executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, for increased funding that would allow her agency to add eight new regulators to her staff in order to better investigate concerns and complaints regarding public charter schools.
So, let’s have this conversation.
“It shouldn’t be about charter vs. district and which is better. Instead, the discussion should be focused on what we are doing to make sure every public school is a great choice for all public school students.”
What is a charter school?
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools defines these schools as public, tuition-free schools that are open to all students. They have the flexibility to create a school culture that fosters student performance and parent satisfaction.
Vista College Prep, which was recently named a National Blue Ribbon School, is an example of an Arizona public charter school providing value to the communities in which they serve.
With two locations in the Maryvale neighborhood of west Phoenix and one in south central Phoenix, 92 percent of their students qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Price School Meals program.
This school sets high expectations for family engagement. With 95 percent of parents participating in parent-teacher conferences and 95 percent of students re-enrolling, these campuses foster a focus on family involvement and college attainment, regardless of demographics.
Aren’t charter schools private?
No. Let me say this again. No. Public charter schools are just that – public.
According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, public charter schools are funded by the state and free to all Arizona students. Like traditional district schools, public charter schools often charge fees for before and after school programs, clubs and sports programs; however, the educational services provided during regular school hours are tuition-free. Public charter schools are also not recipients of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
Can anyone go to a charter school?
By law, Arizona public charter schools are required to accept all students. Public charter schools enroll and provide educational services to special education and English Language Learners. Arizona’s law is intended to prevent public charter schools from “cherry picking” students.
How do charters get their funding?
Public charter schools receive funding from the state based on student enrollment. Like traditional district schools, public charter schools may also apply for grants and may be eligible for federal funding that provides additional support for students with specific needs.
Earlier this year, The Arizona Republic tried to answer the public charter vs. district debate of who gets more money.
It drew attention to the fact that the 35-year-old K-12 education funding formula for public schools in Arizona needs a significant overhaul in order to make the funding process equitable and transparent.
For example, district schools receive state funding for buses and transportation services for students; public charter schools receive little, if any, funds for these services. District schools can access funding through property taxes and local bonds and overrides; public charter schools cannot.
According to a June analysis by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a public charter school student will receive $951 less – from all funding sources – than a student in a public school district.
Are charter schools better?
To answer this question, I thought it best to ask someone who has spent considerable time in both. Now a senior at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, my son Roman spent his elementary and middle school years in several district schools. He then attended a small public charter high school focused on early college attainment.
“It’s the wrong question to be asking,” he stated. “Every kid is different and his needs change depending on what is happening in his life and his local school. Just look at me, what worked fine when I was younger needed to change as I grew.
“The conversation about district and charter schools is about everything and everyone except the students,” he continued. “It shouldn’t be about charter vs. district and which is better. Instead, the discussion should be focused on what we are doing to make sure every public school is a great choice for all public school students.”
Roman is right.
We can and should strengthen the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools’ ability to hold outliers in the public charter school sector accountable. And transparency and accountability are essential when stewarding public funds.
It’s equally important, however, to honor and recognize the choice more than 185,000 families have made when it comes to educating their children. Their voices – their stories – matter in this discussion.
So, let’s have that conversation.