Column: Creating and managing new schools is a feature, not a bug of Arizona K-12

Lawmakers have put charter school transparency on the agenda in this session and have started the process with the largest charter school reform package in decades.

Senator Kate Brophy McGee has filed SB 1394 with a bipartisan group of cosponsors to reform charter school board and staff training, procurement and financial transparency and expands the power of the Arizona Auditor General to investigate charters.

Already charter school critics have found something to complain about. They say this bill contains a “loophole” in not requiring competitive bidding for charter school management.

The tension between autonomy and independence is a valid topic for debate, but let me explain why this so-called “loophole” is exactly what allows Arizona charter schools and school districts to produce extraordinary academic results with a majority-minority student population and for a modest amount of public funding.

Requiring a charter school to outsource its core academic and operational missions would impose destructive standards on charters that would essentially kill any incentive for charter organizations to create new schools. This is a standard we do not ask of our school districts. Arizona has a growing student population and thousands of students on waitlists at high demand district and charter schools- we need new schools.

Arizona charter schools appear to be very well managed as a sector, in no small part because families shun and thus close undesired schools. If charter school organizations were required to raise millions of dollars to open schools but then had no ability to manage those schools, they would doubtlessly stop opening schools in Arizona. No other state has made such an outlandish requirement.

Advocates of single-site-only charter schooling should explain why they would not apply the same standard to school districts. Arizona school districts have been improving academic outcomes and will always be the vital foundation of Arizona’s system of public education, but a single-site management requirement would stop them from opening new schools as well. For instance, the Phoenix Union district has been creating a variety of specialized schools to satisfy needs and to accommodate enrollment growth. Under current law, if the Phoenix Union High School District staff and governing board, for instance, sees a need and demand for a new school, they are free to open and manage it.

The ultimate success or failure of this new Phoenix Union district school will depend upon how the community values it vis-à-vis other options they have for their children. This is as it should be for Phoenix Union, and as it should be for charter organizations as well. Phoenix Union’s incentive to establish new school will diminish considerably if the district lacks control of the management of the school and loses the ability to coordinate it with its other schools. Like school districts, charter management organizations develop expertise and access to finance capital, and an academic curriculum and standards across sites. There is no guarantee that single-site schools would be able to successfully recreate the real estate and financial expertise of districts and charter management organizations.

Despite our delightful openness to new ideas in Arizona, we should proceed with caution on this front because we have a great deal to lose given the current momentum. If charter school opponents wish to apply this single-site standard only to charters but not to districts, their motives stand revealed. Describing the ability to create and manage new schools as a “loophole” appears to be a reactionary urge to scoop the bygone era of monopoly schooling from its well-deserved spot in the ash-bin of Arizona history. If, on the other hand, it is a great idea, why not apply it to districts as well? Arizona families should be the ultimate arbiters of the mix of school offerings, and our laws should be fair in their treatment of both districts and charters.

Senator Kate Brophy McGee’s bipartisan group of cosponsors has developed a thoughtful balance of increased transparency and accountability while preserving the fundamental independence needed for continued success. Overall, the charter sector has achieved truly remarkable things for students and provided opportunities for educators to create their own vision of a high-quality public education. It is likewise reasonable that if a district is going to raise the millions of dollars necessary to open a new school, that the district manages that school. The debate over these topics, while entirely appropriate and hopefully healthy, should recognize that Arizona students have been leading the nation in academic gains. We should not take this level of progress for granted, and it should give us some confidence in our current practices.

Matthew Ladner

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