District or Charter in Arizona?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Economist ran a fantastic article on charter schools recently, marred only by a bit by a bit of overconfidence from Mackie Raymond on charter school authorizing:

Credo thinks that the variation in quality can be traced to the governing legislation behind the schools. Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. Ohio, where most charters are worse than the traditional schools, gained a reputation as the “Wild West” of charter schools because it exercised almost no oversight.

Credo did report finding lower rates of academic growth in Arizona charter schools, but also some bright spots. A previous analysis of growth by UCLA’s Lew Solomon found higher rates of academic growth, and an analysis more recent that either of these found similar rates of growth between charter and district schools. Moreover, Paul Peterson noted that the Credo study may have been unduly influenced by a large number of students spending their first year in a charter school, and charter schools that were in their first year of operation. Students take an academic hit during the period of acclimation to a new school, and schools are not generally at their best during their shakedown period.

No one has performed a random assignment study on charter schools in Arizona, but the random assignment studies that have been performed are quite positive for charter schools. The weight of the available evidence leads me to believe that the same would be true in Arizona. After all, if Arizona charter schools had persistently lower rates of academic growth, it would be hard to explain why general education low-income students consistently outperformed their district peers on all 5 2011 NAEP exams:

The desirability of very cautious authorizing discussed in The Economist has sadly become conventional wisdom. Personally, I am not a fan.

First, let’s recognize that the idea of hyper-cautious authorizing fits some states better than others. It’s always bad in my view, but it would have been flat-out insane in Arizona. Before the bust, the Arizona state government had been shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars per year to build new district schools to cope with enrollment growth. Those schools are **ahem** in the red columns in the above figure.

In the absence of the hundreds of charter schools that have opened in Arizona, without state facility funding mind you, since the charter school law passed in 1994, the financial burden on Arizona taxpayers to build new school space would have been even greater. No one in Arizona had a strong reason to be terrified by the possibility of ineffective charter schools opening when we were bearing a terrible financial burden to build lots of ineffective district schools.

Now obviously this is no justification to allow convicted felons or random ya-hoos who can’t put a credible business plan together the chance to open a charter school. Bad for kids, bad for taxpayers, no doubt. It is far from clear to me however that authorizing boards are especially adept at predicting in advance who will be a success, and who will fail. In fact, it seems likely to me that the elitist authorizing processes of some other states might have declined Rick Ogston the opportunity to open Carpe Diem.

Use this hat to improve your powers of prediction..

Rather than having well-meaning bureaucrats trying to do the impossible divine the future regarding who will succeed and fail- it is a better approach to have a relatively quick hook on the back-end. Despite Arizona’s reputation as the “Wild West” a large number of charter schools have closed over the years. I am hopeful that the A-F grading system will lead Arizona parents to close even more poorly performing charter schools, as decentralized solutions work best.


3 Responses to District or Charter in Arizona?

  1. Interesting graphic, Jay. But, of course the devil’s in the details, right?

    So, to reiterate the standard valid counter, a student who attends a charter had to “choose” into it, right? So, he and his parents have already shown a greater motivation for success than the student who simply attends his district school, often with little interest or motivation or will or desire. So, even though our charter kid may be poor, he is already self-selecting with the intention of working harder and pursuing success. And, of course, we can’t forget these are NAEP scores – for which the lack of student accountability makes them about the least reliable of standardized tests.

    Of course, that’s simply the necessary concession – that you rarely acknowledge. And, I am in no way bashing charters. In fact, as you would note from my past comments, I am a huge fan of charters. The more the better. That’s what makes Colorado a great place – open enrollment and a thriving charter movement.

    That is thriving except when it tries to impose its approach on a district school like Cole – a neighborhood school that KIPP took on to turn around … and backed in less than two years because the kids – who were “left behind” during the charter exodus – did not buy in and respond the same way the kids who “chose” to attend KIPP in other locations.

    Just some necessary concessions.

  2. matthewladner says:


    The random assignment studies address the possibility that charter students are more motivated than district students by comparing lottery winners and losers. Everyone had motivation enough to apply. We don’t have such a study for Arizona yet, and without it, we are left to make due with lesser evidence.

    I’ve never heard NAEP described as “the least reliable” of standardized tests. Education Week conducted a study of education experts, news coverage and scholarly journal articles in 2006 and found NAEP to be the highest rated education study and data source, with the highest possible scores in each:


    KIPPs Colorado experience that you describe doesn’t shock me. Choice works because parents and student opt in to an education approach that they feel meets the needs of their child. Buy-in is certainly not a given.

    There is no one true way to educate all children and that certainly includes KIPP. If KIPP failed to run a school with a attendance boundary containing a group of people with various needs and no consensus about what constitutes a quality education, two lessons come to mind. First, KIPP needs to stick to charter schools, second the students need as many options as possible.

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