Arizona's Big Stakes in Charter Schools State Is a Laboratory for New School Genre - and Its Effects on Public Education

Article excerpt

The Center of Excellence Charter High School has no lunchroom, gymnasium, or library. For reports, students use a bookmobile that parks blocks away. For the occasional art class, they walk to a nearby elementary school.

It's a long list of "have nots," but what the school here does have is one teacher for every 15 students. In small rooms that are carpeted and quiet, teachers coach tiny clusters of students in just four subjects: English, math, social studies, and science.

"We don't offer electives and {other} activities," says Principal Gloria Junkersfeld. "We do offer an ... environment that makes it impossible to escape learning." This school - and 783 other charter schools across the US - are front and center in America's long debate on education reform. Now, four years after charter schools were invented as a palatable alternative to vouchers, they offer a mixed track record - and some early lessons on how public schools are reacting to the experimental upstarts in their midst. Here in Arizona, where nearly one-third of all charter schools are concentrated, supporters say the Center of Excellence school and others like it have turned around the lives of students who failed in conventional public schools. But partly because of highly publicized failures elsewhere, the 240 charter schools in the state are under fresh scrutiny by reformers, legislators, and media both within and without Arizona. Because of the large number of Arizona charter schools, the state's experience "provides an opportunity to see not just whether {charter schools} are successful, but how their {growth in popularity} might affect the overall education equation," says Ted Kolderie, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn. So far, assessments are being made in the same contentious climate that marked the birth of charter schools in 1994. In the propaganda battles that have ensued, supporters claim charter schools offer parents a way to circumvent the pitfalls of conventional public education - by cutting bureaucracy, restoring local control, and empowering teachers. Detractors cite an equally long list of problems: lack of accountability, questionable standards, elitism, and even segregationism. But the No. 1 question, say observers on both sides, is whether the charter-school option has helped to break the near-monopoly of conventional public schools, forcing them to reform in order to attract or keep students. Catalyst for reform The answer seems to be, they have. "The free-market incentive for public schools to improve their offerings or lose their students is already working," says Jeff Flake of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative economic think tank that promotes limited government. The Phoenix school district lost 90 students over two years instead of gaining 6,000 that demographers had expected, he notes, attributing the decline to the new presence of charter schools. "Larger schools in the public system have entered the competition for schoolchildren by overhauling programs {and} facilities," says Mr. Flake. A charter school's popularity is one measure of accountability - that parents will remove their children if they are not satisfied with results, he says. Moreover, standardized national tests such as the Stanford Nine have also borne out the success of charter schools. …


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