Charter School Enrollment Continues To Rise In Arizona

Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2016 - 9:11pm
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According to the Arizona Department of Education, the number of students enrolled in charter schools continues to grow.

About 180,000 students currently attend charter schools in Arizona. That’s an increase of 8,000 students in the last year.

At the same time, district school enrollment has stayed the same.

But, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, according to Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

“Arizona has been a leader in the school choice movement for decades,” he said. “We have the highest percentage of students in charter schools in this state.”

The school choice movement was started in Arizona because he said that many felt there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all model for education.

“Starting a couple decades ago in Arizona, we thought, ‘Well no, we need to give people a choice, let them go where they want to,’” he said. “So, sort of by definition, people are sorting themselves.”

But, he said it’s a mistake to directly compare charter schools and district schools because they are not a monolithic entity.

“There are certainly many charter schools that do very well academically, there are others that do not do so well,” he said.

Some charter schools, particularly high schools, are very high achieving, according to Hunting. But, on the other end of the spectrum, there are credit recovery schools, which are often online.

“They’re serving a population that may have dropped out the traditional district high schools,” he said. “And they, obviously, do not do quite so well.”

So, with a state funding crisis in Arizona’s education system for the last several years, what does that mean for growing charter schools?

According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, budget cuts continue to undermine charter schools. And, according to Hunting, they get more than double the funding that district schools do per pupil from the state.

“District schools get about half of their funding from local property taxes,” he said. “Charter schools get essentially no funding from local funding, they can’t impose property taxes the way a school district can.”

And what does this growth mean for students? Hunting said that’s up for interpretation, but he thinks we are starting to create two distinct systems in Arizona: A charter system and a district system.  

“Those are different,” he said. “Whether that difference is good or bad is sort of a matter of your own opinion. But there’s going to be inequities there.”

Hunting said that charter schools have higher percentages of white students than district schools do, they serve a lower percentage of English-language Learners, they have a lower percentage of students on Individual Education Plans and they serve a lower percentage of students in the free and reduced lunch program.

And, Hunting said that a parent simply choosing to send their child to a high-achieving charter school isn’t always as easy as it sounds. He said that a lot of parents can drive their kids 20 miles every day to a charter school and rearrange their work schedule to do it. But, not all of them can.

“If you working a retail sales job, if you’re in the restaurant industry, where your shift changes every two weeks depending upon what the boss posts on the work schedule board, you probably cannot commit to that kind of thing,” he said. “If you are a low income parent that has unreliable transportation, you cannot commit to doing that.”

And that means, your kids are basically going to be stuck in your local, district school.  

“It’s possible that what we will end up having eventually is system where the district schools are there for people who simply cannot make a choice to go elsewhere,” Hunting said.

But, he said, even though Arizona’s district schools are 49th in the nation in terms of per-student funding they’re doing pretty well.

“Our district schools are still doing a pretty good job considering situation that they’re in,” he said. “Our test scores are going up. Our graduation rates are good. Our college-going rates are pretty good. We may not have the district schools that are sending literally 100 percent of their students onto college, but we’re sending a very good percentage.”

He attributed that mainly to dedicated teachers who are doing a good job under some difficult circumstances.

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