Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It's Winter and the Charter Schools Are Contracting

It's winter, and that means it's Arizona: grapefruit and palm trees galore...and charter schools. More charter schools than in any other state, though states like California and Texas may have more students enrolled in charter schools. There are more than 500 Kindergarten through grade 12 charter schools in Arizona with more than 10% of the K-12 population enrolled in them. Their evolution from the mid-1990s to today has followed a pattern evidenced elsewhere in the U.S.: a small number of inventive and entrepreneurial efforts slowly give way to a large number of schools with educational Management Organizations (EMOs) running multiple charters. Arizona is second only to Michigan in the number of for-profit EMOs operating in the state. Small academically intensive charters that once creamed off top students from traditional public schools either continue to operate with small enrollments or lose their students back to the AP and honors tracks of the traditional publics. The majority of the charters at the secondary school level draw students from among the drop-outs of the traditional publics. The EMOs run things with an eye on the bottom line and the business world awakens to new opportunities. Gary Miron and his colleagues identified nearly 800 charter schools nation-wide enrolling nearly 400,000 students operated by for-profit EMOS; and though the rate of growth is not exponential, it is impressively linear.

At least in Arizona, state-level oversight of the 500+ charter schools has bordered on non-existent since their inception 15 years ago. Just recently the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools has taken a look at the nearly 400 charter school operators in the state--well, not all of them, in fact, at only 78 of them in the past two years. And what did they find? Of the 78 charter school operators reviewed, 27 (35%) were put on probation and 4 were denied renewed contracts.

Consider one such EMO. The Leona Group, LLC, moved its corporate offices from Michigan to Arizona some 12 years ago. Leona operates 22 charter schools in Arizona. Of these 22 schools, exactly half made AYP (Academic Yearly Progress) under NCLB in the 2010-2011 school year.

When a charter school in Arizona fails (i.e., shuts down--as many have--or is denied a renewal of its contract) certain political interests celebrate the occasion as the working of the market place, and do not hesitate to suggest that by implication the charter schools that continue to exist--having survived the Darwinian challenge--must be excellent.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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