Desert Bloom - Arizona's Free Market in Education

Article excerpt

With 351 charter school campuses, Arizona has developed the first statewide free market in education. The authors report on Arizona's five-year experiment, noting both promising findings and causes for concern.

WHILE MANY public educators are more preoccupied with vouchers for private schools, an estimated 1,700 charter schools in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico educate 350,000 students, dwarfing the number of students in all the public and private voucher schemes combined. Charter schools are choice-based public schools. Unlike magnet schools, charter schools in most states are free from local school district control and cannot restrict admission to the academically talented. While vouchers are available only to low-income families, charter schools serve rich and poor alike. Voucher programs are kept small, but expansive charter laws such as those in Michigan, Arizona, and the District of Columbia allow for vast numbers of charter schools. This makes charter schools icebergs of education reform, with far more impact than is readily apparent.1 No state has more charter schools than Arizona. Virtually every school district in the state is within commuting distance of a charter school. We interviewed 31 Arizona educators, policy makers, and teacher union officials from December 1997 to November 1999 to explore the rapid spread of charters, to learn how district schools react to the competition, and to find lessons for other states considering the charter school version of free-market education.

The School Improvement Act (HB 2002) passed the Arizona state legislature in June 1994 as a compromise between supporters of school district interests and proponents of vouchers, a popular idea in heavily Republican and lightly unionized Arizona.2 A state policy maker recalled that, while the voucher proposal was capped at 8,000 students and limited to low-income students, vouchers were really the top issue that drew all the fire. As this debate was raging and you had editorials being done and talk radio and TV news were really focusing on this issue, you had a lot of people who were opposed to vouchers but didn't want to seem like they were totally anti-reform who said, "You know, we could go with those charter schools . . . we just couldn't go with those vouchers because that's too extreme."

Similarly, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, strong charter laws were passed to ward off pressure for vouchers.3

Why So Many Charters?

The unparalleled flexibility of Arizona's charter school law permitted a huge charter movement. Both charter supporters and critics believe that other states would have similar numbers of charters had they passed similar laws. Republican state legislators, including Lisa Graham Keegan (elected Arizona superintendent of public instruction in 1994), wrote the charter law with input from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank.

Learning from other states, Keegan realized that school districts generally charter few schools, because they tend to see charter schools as competitors. As of December 1995, only 14 charter schools were open in the (then) five states with "weak" charter laws, as compared to 222 charter schools in the five states with laws placing chartering authority outside local school districts.4

The Arizona charter law allows charters to be granted by local school boards, the Arizona Board of Education, or a charter board composed of gubernatorial appointees. Applicants can apply to whichever authority they choose and can reapply the next year if rejected. While the two state-level authorities are limited to 25 new charters annually, a member of the charter board boasted that it "is not a fuddy-duddy, do-nothing group.

We've done a lot of analysis looking for loopholes" to foster expansion of charters. "Loopholes" include:

1. Allowing one charter holder to open multiple campuses. …