LGK on Arizona’s “Wild West” Charter Schooling

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Lisa Graham Keegan takes to the pages of Fordham to talk about lessons learned out here in the Wild West in When Regulating Charter Schools Proceed with Caution. Lisa raises the point that other policies, including A-F school grading, may have contributed to our success. I suspect that she is entirely right about that, but to me this is the money quote:

Moreover, Arizona’s “wild” charter journey led to many low-income, highly performing charter management organizations that can only be found in the Grand Canyon State. Many are community-focused and community-developed, which we all say that we want, but their first priority was on stabilizing the communities they grew from. In other words, they weren’t very good academically to start—but they did transform their neighborhoods, and parents trusted these new schools with their precious children over many other options that went out of business due to lack of enrollment. Years later, many of them, like Academies of Math and Science, Mexicayotl Academy, and Espiritu Schools, are now among the top performing schools in not just the state, but in the country, and were highlighted in last week’s Education Equality Index. The thing is, it took a decade to do that. And we Arizonans let it happen.

Translating this into Ladnerese- if Arizona had five year charters and default closures we might have arbitrarily closed some schools which blossomed into very high performing operations that now do a great job with disadvantaged kids. I use the word might because even if the Arizona Charter School Board had gone hillbilly nuts technocrat (Hey man- hold my beer while I close this school- this gonna be AWESOME!) the schools in question would have got their parents riled up, hired lawyers to engage in delaying actions, etc. I for one am happy that the schools LGK mentions could focus their energies on improving academics rather than fighting a bureaucratic guerrilla war.

Meanwhile these schools faced a much harsher form of accountability- from Arizona parents. Hundreds of Arizona charter schools have closed, and their average length of existence is 4 years, with an average of only 62 students in the final year of operation. If you live to see year 5 as an Arizona charter school, you are probably doing something right because everyone wants your students- your home district, fancy school districts like Scottsdale, Madison and Chandler are playing the open enrollment game, the other charter schools, and the private schools with the assistance of choice programs.

Frontier justice does not allow for parents to appear at a hearing to vent their anger, or for lawyers to file motions, or allies to lobby their political contacts for reprieve. The parents simply never enroll and/or walk away, there are private efforts to explain the reality of the situation to those institutions needing hospice care to wind down, and meh and sub-meh bleeds out on a dusty street full of hot lead. Some of you don’t believe this. Some of you don’t want to believe this. Well…just maybe…

 

 

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