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Arizona Charter Schools Often Ignore Latino Students and English-Language Learners

Arizona Charter Schools Often Ignore Latino Students and English-Language Learners
Pablo Iglesias

Twenty years ago, Arizona became the second state in the nation to allow charter schools to operate in the public education system. In honor of the anniversary, New Times is taking a hard look at charters in Arizona. The first story in the ongoing series examined how charter schools — both nationally and in Arizona — "push out" kids with disabilities ("The New Segregation," May 15, Amy Silverman). Today, we explore how charters in Arizona tend to operate in white, affluent neighborhoods, leaving out Latino students from poor areas. — Amy Silverman


Arizona charter schools have largely ignored Latino students and English-language learners from poor communities.

Once Norma Diaz's alarm clock blares shortly before 6 a.m., her modest South Phoenix home turns into a madhouse.

She cracks open her eyes, peels off her blankets, and calls out to her seven sons to wake up and get ready for school. Within minutes, the boys, ages 6 to 18, are vying for the single bathroom in the tidy home.

The sounds of morning fill the flat-roofed stucco house — car doors opening and slamming, engines firing up — as the neighborhood awakens. The homes are weathered, and most of the front yards are sparsely landscaped, but even the few patches of grass are neatly trimmed.

The boys brush their teeth and comb their hair as Mom calls out, asking if they're almost ready. Roberto, Norma's husband, is prepping for a long, hard day of landscaping.

Norma juggles making breakfast with packing her husband's lunch and helping the younger boys get dressed. Some days it seems impossible. If they're running short on time, Norma tells her youngest son that breakfast is going to have to wait a few minutes until his brothers are dropped off at school. The cherub-faced 3-year-old, Jesus, doesn't seem to mind.

Belts? Check. Ties? Check. Shirts tucked in? Check. Everyone's homework signed and accounted for? Check and check. They're ready to fly out the door.

That's when things get really complicated, as Norma and Roberto Diaz struggle to deliver six kids to four different school campuses.

Three of the children attend the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school about three miles away. Norma or Roberto drive Jose, 17, and Juan, 15, to the Academy's high school campus, and Alejandro, 13, to its middle school campus.

The oldest, Francisco, 18, attends South Mountain High School, and the two younger boys, Luis, 8, and Angel, 6, go to C.J. Jorgensen School in the Roosevelt Elementary School District — within walking distance.

Norma is convinced the daily sacrifice of shuttling her children to and from different campuses is worth it and will give them a greater chance of graduating from college. With her husband still at work, she has to make sure they finish their homework so they don't fall behind Phoenix Collegiate Academy's rigorous academic program.

When her sons were younger, that sometimes meant walking across the street to ask a neighbor to explain a homework assignment written in English. Now, she says, the older children can translate. In fact, she laments that her sons are losing their Spanish fluency.

When Phoenix Collegiate Academy expands next year to serve second- and third-grade students, Norma will be poised to transfer her youngest sons from Jorgensen to the Academy.

She wants all her sons to have better opportunities than she did.

"I got a scholarship from my elementary school in Mexico so I could keep studying past sixth grade. I was so excited. I wanted to go. But my dad said no," she says in Spanish, lowering her voice and eyes. "He said that women are supposed to stay at home, and the men could go and study. He wouldn't let me go."

Diaz helped her mom tend to the house until she turned 16.

"Then, I had to go work as a servant for this woman," she says. "I had to clean the house. I had to work in the fields, cutting corn or pulling beans. The house was about two hours away by bus and by train, so I stayed [at the woman's] Monday through Friday, but on Saturday I was allowed to go home and visit my mom."

Her servitude lasted seven years.

 

Norma Diaz with six of her seven sons (back row, left to right) Jose, Alejandro, Juan (front row, left to right) Angel, Jesus, and Luis.
Norma Diaz with six of her seven sons (back row, left to right) Jose, Alejandro, Juan (front row, left to right) Angel, Jesus, and Luis.
Andrew Pielage

"I tell my sons that they don't know what hard work is," she says. "They don't have to worry about paying bills or making sure there is food on the table. Their only job is to go to school and get good grades. I tell them that I want them to be someone important — I mean, they're important to me — but I want them to be people who contribute something important to the world."

Norma wasn't sure how her sons would fare in the strict, structured environment at PCA, but she says she knew "it would be good for them."

And so far, it has been.


Phoenix Collegiate Academy is an anomaly, and so is the Diaz family. Many families in Arizona are stretching to take full advantage of the state's school choice options. But not so many in neighborhoods like Norma Diaz's.

Twenty years ago, Arizona lawmakers passed the nation's second charter school law, promising to improve public education by loosening regulations and opening the market.

In many areas, charter schools have delivered upon that promise. But in others, they have not. Charter schools have failed special education students by "pushing out," suggesting kids with disabilities would be better off in district schools (in other words, traditional public schools run by district offices) and, in some circumstances, refusing to provide services ("The New Segregation," May 15).

The Arizona charter school movement also has failed, in large part, to create excelling schools for Latinos, students learning English, and children from economically disadvantaged families — often because the school operators simply don't want to.

With few exceptions, the better charter schools in this state are located in more affluent neighborhoods — out of reach for low-income Latino families.

Even the staunchest supporters of charter schools don't deny that charters don't adequately serve Latinos and economically disadvantaged students.

Eileen Sigmund, president of the trade group Arizona Charter Schools Association, acknowledges that the "weight of these underperforming schools is disproportionately borne by students who are poor and of color, predominantly Latino."

It doesn't have to be this way, as charters in some other states do a good job of reaching beyond rich, white neighborhoods by opening choice schools in poorer areas, experts say.

"Charter schools in places like Washington, D.C., New Jersey, New York, Florida, Illinois, are overcoming the odds," says Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "They are taking the students that are very difficult to teach and who are starting behind, and are able to close the achievement gap."

One shining example is KIPP Schools, a nationwide network of charters serving students only in disadvantaged, urban neighborhoods. Featured in the acclaimed 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, KIPP sends students to college at four times the national average.

The schools are so popular that thousands of students participate in a lottery hoping to get a desk in one of the urban classrooms.

Arizona has famous schools, too.

BASIS Charter Schools garners national and international attention because its students consistently excel on tests. In its most recent list of America's Best High Schools, U.S. News and World Report ranked BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Tucson BASIS second and fifth, respectively. Newsweek and Washington Post also have ranked the schools among the top in the nation.

But along with praise comes criticism, because BASIS establishes schools only where mostly white, affluent families live.

Consider the demographics of each BASIS school's ZIP code. On average, according to U.S. Census data, only 10 percent of residents in the same ZIP code live below poverty level, the median income is nearly $69,000, and households are overwhelmingly white.

  See also: The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes on a Different Meaning If Your Kid Has a Disability

Alejandro, 12, studying at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy.
Alejandro, 12, studying at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy.
Andrew Pielage

Consider other obstacles for poor families seeking a quality charter education:

• Many charge students mandatory fees for sports, uniforms, and other school supplies — in some cases, as much as $1,500 per student per year. And they also strongly encourage parents to make frequent financial contributions to the school.

• High-end charters typically don't participate in federal programs that make free or discounted meals available to qualifying students. Consider that underprivileged families (by program standards, a family of four with an annual household income of less than $31,000) rely on the meals their children get at district schools. Of the state's more than 520 charter schools operating in 2012-13, however, fewer than half participated in the school lunch program.

• Most of the charter schools serving predominantly poor communities received a performance grade from the Arizona Department of Education of C, D, or F for 2011. In fact, only 20 Arizona charter schools participating in the free-meal program and serving 60 percent or more of students living at or below the poverty level received an A in 2011.

• Few charter schools choose to serve students who need to learn English because test scores of English-language learners tend to lower a school's overall performance rating.

The state's 61,000 English-language learners also are more expensive to educate. Only 2 percent of charter schools in 2012-13 reported spending state money on ELL services, according to the Department of Education's Superintendents annual report.

"It is paramount that our state legislators prioritize adequately funding public education in general and specifically for English-language learners in Arizona, which they have not done in the past 20 years," says Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos, an associate professor at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. "Our state's long-term economic prosperity will be directly linked with its ability to create a strong K-12 educational system for all students, including its significant ELL population."


Arizona has a long history of shortchanging students with limited English proficiency.

The state's woefully inadequate spending on such students prompted the parents in the Nogales Unified School District to file a federal lawsuit against the state in 1992.

In Flores v. Arizona, parents argued that the state failed to provide effective instruction to students and, therefore, violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The law requires "school districts to take action to overcome language barriers that impede English-language learner students from participating equally in school districts' educational programs."

It took seven years for the case to see the inside of a courtroom. In January 2000, a U.S. District Court judge sided with parents, agreeing that inadequate state funding was causing academic deficiencies among ELL students. By that August, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan reached an agreement to resolve the legal wrangling. Students would receive daily instruction in English-language development appropriate to their level, and all bilingual education would be commensurate to the education delivered to typical students.

But Ron Unz, a wealthy California businessman, had a different plan.

He had just bankrolled a law in his state to ban bilingual education in public schools. In Arizona, he pumped more than $100,000 into a campaign "to dismantle bilingual education," as he explains on his website.

The measure passed with 63 percent of the vote in November 2000 and effectively turned Arizona classrooms into English-only zones. Instructors were mandated to isolate students with language deficiencies for four hours a day for a year and immerse them in intensive English instruction.

"It's not working. Ask any teacher and they'll tell you it's not working," says Steve Gallardo, an Arizona senator and member of the Cartwright Elementary School District's school board. "Our current ELL system is not educating our students. It's not. If anything, we're holding them back. You're seeing it in their performance on tests."

Though voters selected the arbitrary method of instruction, funding issues remained unresolved. Lawmakers passed five laws between 2001 and 2008 in apparent attempts to comply with the 2000 court order, but each time, the court deemed the money they earmarked for ELLs was inadequate.

Arizona lawmakers racked up $21 million in court fines for failing to resolve the funding issue, even as state officials repeatedly appealed the court rulings.

 

In 2009, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled education funding is a state issue and kicked the case back to district court — where it remains today. Unresolved.

"2013: Arizona in Transformation," a report published by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, an Arizona-based nonprofit, shows that the ELL system remains deeply flawed.

Between 2004 and 2012, the number of Latino English-language learners in Arizona decreased by more than half — from 136,526 to 66,357 — on paper.

The Center explained that the "reality of the decrease" stemmed from the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment's loosened standards, which allowed for an ELL to be classified as proficient even when the student was not.

The Morrison Institute on Public Policy's "English Language Learners: What's at Stake for Arizona" analysis in 2013 showed that ELL students in Arizona have not made academic gains in the 14 years since voters banned bilingual education.

In fact, the achievement gap has widened.

The Morrison Insitute report notes that more than a decade ago, test results for third through 12th grade showed that only third-grade ELL students exceeded in AIMS math tests. In 2010, no ELL student passed the same test.

In 2006, 44 percent of those students graduated from high school. Five years later, only 25 percent graduated.

So where do charter schools fit into this equation? They don't, really. This is a ball few have chosen to pick up.

"Charter schools are able to pick and choose the students. They might not like to hear that, but it's true," Gallardo says. "[State leaders] lack the political will to make changes in how the state funds and teaches ELL students because there is this perception these are just a bunch of undocumented kids, and they're not."

He says that charter schools are public schools and should be obligated to teach every student and afford them the same opportunity as non-ELL students.


One of the biggest and oldest charter school companies in Arizona is Great Hearts Academies. It's also among the whitest.

Great Hearts reported spending no money on ELL instruction.

That hasn't been a problem at all in Arizona, which has one of the laxest charter school laws in the country. There are no requirements for where you put a school or whether you make it accessible to kids from poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

But Great Hearts has struggled to get permission to open in other states — specifically because of its record in Arizona.

There are 19 schools in Great Hearts' Arizona network; all but one received an A grade last year. Only two predominantly serve minorities and participate in the free and reduced-cost lunch program — Maryvale Prep in West Phoenix and Teleos Prep in South Phoenix. The latter received a C last year.

Some Great Hearts schools, including Anthem Prep, have an 85 percent white student enrollment. The average white population of all the company's schools (excluding Maryvale Prep, for which no demographic data was available) is 68 percent, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Education officials in Nashville couldn't get past those stats when Great Hearts took its school blueprint to Tennessee in 2012. Great Hearts officials were unable to convince the local school board of their commitment to creating a charter school with ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

Peter Bezanson, Great Hearts' chief growth officer, explains that in Nashville, charter schools were initially only for low-income students who qualified for the federal free-meals program. When a change in Tennessee law opened charter schools to all students, he says, a large group of Nashville parents asked Great Hearts to come to their community as the first "open enrollment" school in the state.

In Tennessee, unlike in Arizona, district school boards must approve charters. The local charter review board approved Great Hearts' application, but Metro Nashville School Board rejected it.

Great Hearts appealed to the state and won. The state ordered the local board to accept the application, but it refused.

Nashville Metropolitan Councilman Steve Glover, who proposed a moratorium on charter schools in his community, says Great Hearts' plan didn't sufficiently address how it was going to provide transportation for lower-income students from surrounding neighborhoods.

"It was by design," he says of the proposal. "And it would absolutely create a barrier for serving low-income students."

The state ultimately fined the Nashville school board $3.4 million for refusing to allow the school to open. Great Hearts eventually withdrew its application.

The chain also has run into trouble in Texas, where it is slated to open a school in San Antonio next year. Despite approval from the Texas State Board of Education for a San Antonio school, the same board rejected Great Hearts' application in Dallas.

Again, the rejection was grounded in the concerns about Great Hearts' lack of commitment to serving disadvantaged students, according to a November 2013 story in the Texas Tribune.

Turns out, Texas charter laws will allow Great Hearts officials to amend their San Antonio application to include other charters in that state.

Bezanson, also president of Great Hearts Texas, says the criticism isn't fair. He points out that the San Antonio campus is downtown, in an area where 37 percent of residents are Latino and about 30 percent qualify for the federal lunch program.

 

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter School Association, examines a map displaying where the best and worst charter schools in Phoenix’s urban core are located.
Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter School Association, examines a map displaying where the best and worst charter schools in Phoenix’s urban core are located.
Monica Alonzo

"We have a sizable minority population at all our schools," he says, adding that they intentionally market services to minority students on Spanish-language television and radio stations. "We are trying to reach out to all students. This is a learning process."


It's not impossible to run a good charter school in a poor neighborhood in Arizona. Ask Rachel Yanof.

Yanof, founder of Phoenix Collegiate Academy, runs a strict school, but one that is sympathetic to her students' specific needs.

The original South Central Avenue campus is in a business district surrounded by Mexican restaurants, title loan and auto shops, and a Pro's Ranch Market. The school building has been a thrift store, a mattress store, and a bowling alley in past lives. On a recent April morning, it is full of children yet eerily quiet because students are in the midst of testing.

Beyond the businesses, the nearby homes are modest but showing their age. In the area, 25 percent of families live below the poverty level. That means that a family of four survives on $23,850 or less per year.

Yanof grew up in a much different community, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Anchorage, where her father was an attorney. He expected great things from his daughter, and with a degree from Georgetown University, Rachel was on track to land a lucrative career working on Wall Street or perhaps as an influential politician. Instead, during her senior year, she tutored students in Anacostia, an impoverished community not far from swanky Georgetown and its picturesque multimillion-dollar homes.

Some might say the petite, privileged blonde had no business on the streets. But she was indignant about the education inequality she saw.

"I got to thinking about how much of a bubble I lived in," she says. "If you're a kid from inner city New York and can't afford to pay for a great school, your public school isn't necessarily going to get you there. It doesn't mean you're not bright or that you're not as talented as I was, but it just means I had a good public school and you didn't. And that's not fair."

Yanof delved deeper into the lives of low-income students in 2003, when she was accepted by Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits top college graduates and professionals to teach in poor areas. She was assigned to Greenfield Elementary in Phoenix's Roosevelt School District.

There, she saw a revolving door of officials at the elementary school — four principals and three superintendents in two years — and witnessed the instability unravel students' progress, damning their already fragile education.

Yanof learned just how important a strong, committed principal is to a school and its students. She felt a "moral imperative" to become that leader and focus on the kids who need it the most.

"Poverty isn't just about whether you have breakfast before school. It means that the home you go home to is not necessarily going to be your home tomorrow," she says. "There is instability there."

She explains that the poverty her students endure can serve as a great distraction.

"Poverty means that your parents don't necessarily know when the next paycheck is coming, so the power could go off or the water could stop working. And that's just a reality . . . so you're thinking about where am I going to go to the bathroom after school, not what's my plan for homework. These are the complexities of what our children are thinking about," she says.

Her school received a C in the latest evaluation after getting back-to-back A ratings because PCA made a calculated decision to switch its classroom instruction to mirror new state education standards — even though the state was still testing on the old standards.

"We wanted to expose our students to the new expectations as early as possible," she said, knowing students' scores would take a one-year hit.

 

She relishes the autonomy she and her team have in operating their school but acknowledges that while "charters have a place in the conversation, I don't think the solution is make every school a charter school and suddenly everything is going to be better."

Instead, she says, "there is evidence, especially in Arizona, that there are tons of terrible charter schools."

Forty-two percent of all students enrolled in charter schools attend schools with consistent C, D, or F grades. (By contrast, 35 percent of district schools have similar grades.)

Yanof joined Building Excellent Schools, a Boston-based fellowship aimed at creating fervent leaders to run phenomenal schools. She spent two years training and preparing to open the doors of Phoenix Collegiate Academy to South Phoenix sixth-graders in the summer of 2009. She has expanded each year since then.

By next year, PCA will accept students for grades 2 through 11. In 2016, the charter will graduate its first senior class.

"They push us to the limit every day," says Jose Diaz, 17, who's attended PCA since its opening. When he graduates, he says, he's going to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one of the nation's top-rated colleges.

Phoenix Collegiate Academy's student body is 84 percent Latino, 11 percent African Americans, and 5 percent white and Native American. Yanof signed up the school for the free lunch program — and nearly 100 percent of her students used it. She and her team of two administrators pound the pavement looking for donated supplies and financial contributions so families don't have to pay fees for uniforms, field trips, sports, or other expenses.

"We just can't afford as a society to write off this huge part of our population that is so amazing," Yanof says. "[Teaching them] is super-hard work. I can understand why not everyone would want to do it."


Yanof's is a success story. Other charter schools in impoverished neighborhoods teeter on the edge.

On a Monday morning in May, Salvador Reza sits in a small classroom at Esperanza Community Collegial Academy, a high school wedged between a laundromat and an title loan shop in a North Phoenix strip mall. His white handlebar mustache is neatly trimmed, his hair pulled into a ponytail behind his head.

As the school year winds down, students finish final exams and drop them on Reza's desk. Down the hall, others quietly chat with teachers about summer plans. In another room, the lights are off and soft music plays as a tiny baby — the son of one of the students — takes a mid-morning nap in a small crib.

Reza recalls how attendance has dwindled over the years, especially starting in 2008 when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted neighborhoods around the school for his infamous immigration raids, which he masked as "crime suppression sweeps."

Parents and students caught up in the "sweeps" were hauled off to immigration detention centers, where they languished for months or years as they fought to stay in the United States with their family. With targets on their backs, many families moved, taking the school's student base with them.

"From then on, we've been struggling," Reza says.

Reza, best known for civil rights activism and leading immigrant rights rallies, had worked with this community — primarily the Palomino neighborhood, bound roughly by 32nd Street and Bell, Greenway, and Cave Creek roads — for more than a decade. He did not want to see the school close. He stepped in and, drawing on his bachelor's and master's degrees, started teaching the students English and history.

He has been an unpaid instructor for three years.

"We didn't have enough money to have a team to run the school," he says from behind a desk piled with students' exams. "We didn't have enough money to pay the bills, and sometimes we had to lay teachers off."

Most students arrived at the school with low English-language proficiency or were distracted by the daily uncertainty and insecurity. Others spent years lagging academically behind their peers, labeled as "slow" students at traditional schools and simply no longer motivated to learn.

The school received a D from the Arizona Department of Education.

"They are so behind in English, but on the tests, it just looks like we're not teaching them anything," Reza laments. "But they're some of the smartest kids I've ever known."

Among them is Sonia Ramirez, a student at Esperanza on and off since 2009. She floundered at school, fighting with other students and cussing out teachers in defiance.

But she beams as she tells New Times that she passed the AIMS math test this year with an "exceeding" score.

"I came back to school because I wanted a better job," says the repeat senior. "I had moved in with my boyfriend, dropped out, and was just cleaning houses, but — I don't know — it wasn't enough. I want to get my license to be a CNA and then go to college for a nursing degree."

Anand Manjeet, who has taught math and science at the high school for five years, says the change in Ramirez was drastic.

"When I started here, most of the kids were on probation, were very distracted," she says. "But I made them believe that they could trust me, not as just a teacher, but as a guide in their lives."

 

It is what many of the students from poor, broken families who show up to school with sharp deficits in English need before they can get to learning the basics.

Earning student trust is not something all teachers can master.

Becky Ruiz, who just joined the charter as its new administrator, has a long history of teaching in the area, founding schools and even working for the state charter school board.

Her mission, she says, is to transform Esperanza High into a school that lives up to its name, which in Spanish means "hope."


Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Board Association, believes there can — and should be — more schools like PCA and Great Hearts' Maryvale Prep eliciting high achievement from the students who are hardest to teach.

That's the mission of "New Schools for Phoenix," a two-year program sponsored by charter association Chicanos por la Causa, a nonprofit that advocates for disadvantaged Latinos, and corporate giants like Arizona Public Service and the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable arm of Walmart. It puts highly motivated individuals through intensive training on how to run a successful charter school.

The target area for those schools is Phoenix Union High School District, a 220-square-mile area. There, 79 percent of students are Latino, 87 percent of students are enrolled in high-poverty schools, and only 6 percent of students living within the district boundaries are attending A-rated school.

Astounding results are possible for students lucky enough to win a spot in such schools.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has advocated for charter schools to use "weighted" admission lotteries to give an edge to "educationally disadvantaged" students — those with disabilities, those who are low-income or homeless, and learners of English. And earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education updated its own policies to reflect the same preference.

KIPP Schools, for instance, is such a transformative force in the lives of low-income students in 20 states and the District of Columbia that hundreds show up for lotteries desperate to win a seat in one of the school's urban classrooms.

Steve Mancini, a spokesman for KIPP, says its charter schools open only in underprivileged communities and that more than 86 percent of their students are from low-income families and 95 percent are black or Latino.

"If you're a low-income kid, you have a 10 percent chance of finishing college by age 29 — 10 percent!" Mancini says. "If you're wealthy, you have a 77 percent change of finishing college — 77 percent! Basically, when you're born, the zeros on your parents' bank account are defining your future."

There aren't any KIPP schools in Arizona, where state education funding is anemic. Charter schools here get about $7,800 per student, while states like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut spend about $14,000 or more per student. And, funding aside, there has never been much effort in Phoenix to lure exceptional schools with stellar track records serving students like the state's neediest.

"There was never a serious proposal from Arizona," Mancini says. "There might have been some discussions, but they were never a finalist or a serious contender. Out of their choosing, no one ever stepped up."


Reaching out to ELL students and underprivileged Latinos is a must for Arizona's economic health, according to ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

A 2012 report, "Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona's Future," points out "Arizona's Latinos — our fastest-growing population group — continue to display substantial shortcomings in educational performance levels, lagging well behind the state's white population . . . This imbalance is troubling in itself. But it also represents a grave threat to Arizona's future economic health."

The Institute suggests that major educational policy changes — not more charter schools — are needed to correct the growing achievement gap between the state's most vulnerable population and their more affluent counterparts.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank and one of the loudest school-choice cheerleaders, published a simple but telling fact in "Arizona Charter Schools: A Vision for the Next 20 Years."

"A higher percentage of Arizona charters received As than traditional schools in both 2011 and 2012, the first years the A to F ratings were used," according to the 2013 report. "A higher percentage also received Ds than traditional schools in both years, one indicator demonstrating the way in which Arizona charters have pockets of high achievement and pockets of low performance, with a large middle ground. This distribution is not unlike traditional schools."

In other words, after two decades, charter schools have performed "not unlike traditional schools."

Also, the Morrison Institute reported in "School Reenrollment: Choosing to Stay" that students are "more likely to re-enroll in traditional public schools" — 87 percent re-enrolled in their traditional school versus 77 percent who returned to the charter school they attended the previous year.

"The weak trend between measure of school quality and re-enrollment rates is likely disconcerting news to Arizona's school choice advocates who are invested in the idea that parents will take advantage of higher quality school choice options," according to the analysis. "They are not moving in ways that school choice advocates would expect."

The same report suggested that policymakers "should not overemphasize school choice as a means of reforming public education and, instead [should] work toward policies that improve the schools students are in already."

Morrill, head of the teachers union — which often clashes with charter philosophy because charters are not unionized — remains skeptical.

"We've had charter schools in the state long enough to become students of them," he says. "Choice options were sold on the idea that it would improve the overall education system. Arizona is the choice capital of the country. If choice, by itself, were the mechanism for improvement, Arizona would know it by now."


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