Class Acts: How Charter Schools Are Revamping Public Education in Arizona - and Beyond

Article excerpt

Three years ago, Arizona passed a law that allows almost any reasonably serious person to start a school and receive a little more than $4,000 in state funds for every student enrolled. Such "charter schools," as they're called, are public schools that operate with more autonomy than conventional ones - a vague definition, perhaps, but the best one available. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting them. In the short time they've been around in Arizona, charters have attracted more than 25,000 students, or roughly 3 percent of the state's public school population, and the number is still rising by 10,000 annually. Arizona, with one-fiftieth of the nation's population, has about one-third of its 780 charter schools. Arizona has twice as many charters as California, which has eight times as many children under age 18.

Over the past year, I've visited Arizona three times to see how well its charter schools are working. I especially wanted to find out whether charters were providing competition to traditional public schools and whether, in response, those public schools were trying to improve. I am not an expert on education - far from it - but I write about business and economics, and I've long suspected that one reason public schools fail is that, as government-protected near-monopolies, they lack the feedback mechanisms built into market systems. As a result, they can't get the sort of information that would help them do a better job. Ultimately, they're operated more for the benefit of administrators and teachers than for parents and students - for producers rather than consumers. When charter schools started pulling some of those consumers away from traditional public schools, my hypothesis went, the latter would have no choice but to get better in order to lure the kids back.

Although it's early in the process and the evidence is not yet conclusive, that's precisely what I found when I traveled to the Grand Canyon State. What's more, ira major goal of educational reform is to open the public school system to the salutary effects of competition, charters have more immediate political appeal than vouchers (which would allow families to use state money to send their kids to private schools) and are probably just as effective.

One dramatic illustration of how charters have forced traditional schools to respond was the full-page advertisement - yes, an advertisement - that the Mesa Unified School District ran in local newspapers last summer. The headline blared: "There's no better place to learn than in the 68 Mesa public schools!...Don't miss out!" Mesa, a fast-growing, prosperous city of 350,000 east of Phoenix, is a hotbed of charter schools, with 23 of them currently operating in the area. (The 68 schools to which the ad refers are traditional public schools - although technically all 91 schools are public.)

"We're not afraid of a little competition," says Judi Willis, a school district spokesperson. In fact, Mesa has no choice but to make its conventional public schools better. It's already losing about $10 million a year in funds that are going to charters. From 1996 to 1997, the total public school enrollment in Mesa rose by 1,870, with conventional schools losing 69 students and charters gaining close to 2,000. In fact, Mesa's charter schools have even been hiring school bus drivers away from traditional public schools, offering them 10 percent more pay plus a bonus.

In the Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state, another superintendent, John Baracy, is feeling the heat as well. In his office at an administrative headquarters that is itself as big as a typical school, Baracy tells me that 300 students have left so far for charters - a drain of more than $1 million, or 2 percent to 3 percent, from his budget. He calls these departures "a wake-up call" and says he was moved to phone "our customers that left us" to find out why. …