Celebrating 25 years of Arizona charter schools

In 1994, Arizona became just the eleventh state in the nation to enact a law that would establish public charter schools in the state. The following year, 67 charter schools opened and enrolled under 8,000 students combined.  

Twenty-five years later, these numbers have skyrocketed; Arizona hosts roughly 550 charter schools that teach over 200,000 students. With 18 percent of the population attending a charter school, Arizona has the highest proportion of charter attendees in the nation. 

“District schools are offering so much more variety of programming that they probably weren’t 25 years ago, and charters do the same thing,” Arizona Charter Schools Association president and CEO Jake Logan said. “We have this long list of innovations that charters have brought to the institutional marketplace, and we really think that’s been a net positive of having charter schools in Arizona, both for charter schools and districts, because parents and students have all different kinds of choices.” 

Charter schools offer unique programs and curricula that were unprecedented by the time of their development. For example, Arizona School for the Arts in Downtown Phoenix offers focused classes in ballet, musical instruments, singing, and more. These programs allow students to pursue interest areas and potentially turn them into viable careers.  

“There’s about 150,000 graduates of charter schools… the wide range of skill sets these students have is so amazing,” Logan said. “You have students that go to BASIS [schools] that are excelling in math and science and are filling those needs in our community, you have people from the arts — we have someone from the Arizona School for the Arts who is in the Russian ballet. I think we’ve done a really nice job at trying to look at what the community and parents and students are looking for — and whether it’s a prep school like Glendale Prep or it’s a school that focuses on a particular skill set like music or agriculture, it has helped prepare students for careers in those kinds of fields.” 

In U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Charter High Schools,” seven Arizona charter schools landed in the top ten, including the number one: BASIS Scottsdale. In fact, Arizona charter schools hold two spots in the top twenty of all high schools in the nation. “To a national audience, it shows that there is something going on here,” said Kelly Powell, ACSA director of research and evaluation. “It’s a cluster of schools; it’s not by chance.”

Public charter schools in the state also provide pathways for underrepresented communities. For example, the Arizona Autism Charter School and Sequoia Deaf School both provide special educational curricula for those communities, Powell said. 

“We have a whole segment of charter schools that serve kids that are at-risk — alternative schools. There are over a hundred of them. District schools will often refer them to us,” Powell said. “We put out a lot of tools, like test scores, we put out schools’ report card grades. But there’s a whole other group of parents whose kids are just lost and they’re struggling, and they don’t know where to turn. They go to alternative schools to finish it out and to try to turn them around; we specialize in that.”

Logan points out that these public charter schools help set up students for jobs within the local community. Charter students can utilize dual enrollment to obtain credits towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree that will help them reach the next steps in their career.

“The theme of the day for us is how excited we are for 25 years of charter schools in Arizona and how excited we are for the next 25 years,” Logan said. “We really feel like it’s made a positive impact for Arizona students, and we’re going to continue working hard with our schools and do everything we can to continue that trajectory.”

For more information about 25 years of public charter schools, visit: 25YearsofCharters.org

Ben Norman

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