The Wild West of Education Reform: Arizona Charter Schools
ROBERT MARANTO AND APRIL GRESHAM
Since the passage of Arizona's charter school law in 1994, the state has developed by far the largest charter school sector in the nation, providing the closest existing approximation to comprehensive school choice. What follows is a brief overview of the Arizona charter school phenomenon based on data provided by the Arizona Department of Education and interviews with twenty-nine Arizona policy makers, Department of Education officials, charter school operators, district school officials, and teachers' union officials, conducted by phone and in person from November 1997 to December 1998. We also draw upon the teacher survey described in Chapter 8. We will examine the provisions in the Arizona law that led to the rapid proliferation of charter schools; where Arizona charters appear; some ways in which Arizona charter schools differ from district schools; and how charter school teachers view their schools.
As Chapters 4 and 7 detail, both nationally and in Arizona proposals to provide low-income parents with school vouchers to use at private schools have drawn most of the political fire in the school-choice debate. Yet charter schools have the potential to provide far more comprehensive choice since voucher programs are always limited to those with low income, and are usually restricted in scope as well. Nationwide, fewer than 20,000 students, all low income, took part in public and private voucher programs in 1996-1997 ( Peterson 1998), about the same as the number of students in Arizona charter schools. Arizona charters operate as "stealth vouchers," providing more comprehensive school choice than would any voucher plan that has ever come near passage anywhere. At the start of