A Charter School Progress Report

In charter schools' second year of existence, Arizona already has more of them than any other state. About 17,000 Arizona students are enrolled in these publicly funded but privately owned bastions of education at 168 individual school sites (maintained by a slightly smaller number of charter holders). To date, only one has failed, Citizen 2000, which succumbed to bad accounting in November. Dragonfleye's charter will be questioned in a hearing on January 27.

Only California comes close to Arizona's numbers with 109 schools; together the two states possess about half of the charter schools in the nation.

The intention of the charter-school legislation pushed by then-legislator Lisa Graham Keegan, before she became state superintendent of public instruction, was to make education better and more accessible by turning it over to the free market. And the way to make the market work was to impose as little regulation as possible--which also makes it difficult to assess or correct the individual schools' successes and failures when faced with a case such as Dragonfleye's.

As the rules stand now, it's easier to revoke a school charter for business reasons than for academic reasons, and personnel matters are beyond the government's scope entirely. If a school has any bad actors, then it falls to the school's board to take action. But what if the school's board is controlled by bad actors?

"I think we need a much more comprehensive approach where we don't rely on an auditor general's investigation or a bunch of negative complaints," says Kenneth Bennett, president of the Arizona State Board of Education, "that we're a little more proactive on making sure these schools are doing what they're supposed to do."

Keegan declined comment while the Dragonfleye case is still pending.
"The good news about the Arizona charter law is that it's the most openly written law," says Kay Lybeck, president of the Arizona Education Association, the predominant teachers union in Arizona. "And the bad news is that it's the most openly written law, which means that massive abuse is possible as well, because it came with virtually no guidance at all. We're interested in creating new learning environments, so we're really interested. But if the only thing the state boards and the districts might be interested in is how the money works, then we've missed the whole importance of opening these schools."

But money makes the market work, and the lack of regulation has made for some interesting financial arrangements.

A case in point: Schools can be chartered through the Arizona Department of Education, the State Board of Education or through individual school districts. Three or four school districts on the Navajo reservation have begun chartering schools all over the state as a means of increasing revenues to their school districts.

Challenge Charter School, for instance, is in Glendale, but it is chartered through the Window Rock school district on the Navajo reservation. According to the contract between the district and the school, the district handles the paperwork, and in return charges a $500 fee and 3 percent of the state monies per student that Challenge is entitled to, which is about $552,000 this year. Window Rock's cut would then be about $16,000.

"I don't think that the concept allowing districts to charter schools was at all intended to allow one district to be chartering a bunch of schools well out of their area and realm of control or oversight," says Bennett.

Greg Miller, president of Challenge Charter School, had obtained the Window Rock charter as a stopgap measure and intended to recharter the school independently through the Department of Education or the State Board of Education. But he changed his mind when he discovered that Window Rock administrators were more accessible than the state administrators and offered help with special education and personnel matters as well as other in-servicing.

--Michael Kiefer