Arizona Education: Charter Schools

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Arizona is one of the national leaders in charter schools, which were established here more than 20 years ago. We’ll take a look at an Arizona charter school which is consistently ranked as one of the best high schools in the country, then we will discuss the charter school movement with former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, and Arizona Education Association president Andrew Morrill.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Education" looks at charter schools. Arizona is often considered a leader in the school choice movement due in large part to state-funded charters. We'll hear from an education advocate, along with one of the founders of the state's charter school movement in a moment. First, producer Christina Estes and photographer Kyle Mouce visit "Basis," one of the most successful brands in the charter movement.

Christina Estes: It's one of the first things you notice at "Basis." No bells direct these students to get to class.

Petra Pajtas: It helps the kids stay on time and manage their own time. They are responsible for tracking.

Christina Estes: Principal Petra Pajtas says holding students accountable is key to their success.

Petra Pajtas: They know how to have high expectations for themselves and the teachers. The teachers perform better because of that.

Christina Estes: "Basis" schools want to bridge what they call the international achievement gap. The youngest students have two teachers. One is considered an expert in the subject area. The other is called a learning expert.

Peter Bezanson: The learning expert teacher understands child psychology, how to teach high level mathematics to a child. You have two teachers in every classroom in grades one through four. That leads to students being able to get information from subject experts. It's very uncommon in district schools, in schools generally.

Christina Estes: At Basis Phoenix where they serve fifth through 12th graders, the teachers cover more than one grade level. Like many schools, Basis faces fiscal challenges. Parents are asked to donate to the teacher fund every year.

Petra Pajtas: 100% goes back to teacher performance bonuses. We want to recruit them, retain them and reward them for their excellent work.

Christina Estes: Basis CEO Peter Bezanson says parents also pay for extracurricular activities so they can put every public dollar into the classroom.

Peter Bezanson: We're fiscally conservative in our facilities. They are on small parcels of land and much of our space within a facility is dedicated to classrooms. We have very little in the way of what you might call nonrevenue generating space. So we are very conservative with our facility buildout, and so a typical district school will cost many times what we're able to build a school for.

Christina Estes: Basis schools consistently rank high in national lists that focus on performance and standardized tests. But he says it's not because they only take the smart kids.

Peter Bezanson: It is a popular misconception that because our kids are so smart, parents think you have to be smart to make it here. But we make you smart.
Christina Estes: While Basis schools charge no tuition and offer open enrollment, not everyone gets in. They have more applicants than space and rely on a computerized lottery system to fill a limited number of seats.

Ted Simons: Basis currently operates 13 charter schools in the state with plans to open four more next year. Here now to discuss charter schools in general is former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who helped draft legislation to create charter schools in Arizona. Also joining us, Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill. Good to see you both here, thanks for joining us.

Lisa Graham Keegan: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Before we get into -- let's get into it anyway.

Andrew Morrill: Let's get into it right now!

Lisa Graham Keegan: We're ready.

Ted Simons: Not that. What is -- give me a definition, what is a charter school?

Lisa Graham Keegan: Charter school is a public school who is on contract with the state to increase achievement. So charter schools were brought into the public school system, Ted, in order to allow teachers to bring schools to the school marketplace that would elevate achievement in Arizona. So they would be another option for parents.

Ted Simons: The difference between a charter school and a district school.

Lisa Graham Keegan: A district school traditionally has been the school that you're assigned to. Now, in Arizona probably maybe less than 40% of kids I should say are choosing outside that assigned area. But in local districts, a district school was the neighborhood school. It's governed by the district and back in the day that just was assumed to be your school. Arizona has not done that for over 30 years, way before public charter schools came around.

Ted Simons: What do charter schools offer that's different from district schools?

Andrew Morrill: Well, they offer a choice and Arizona is a choice-rich state. Lisa knows all about that. I've never been described as a founder of anything. I'm very jealous. Next time I'm on Horizon I want to be described as a founder of something. Charter schools offer learning labs and best case scenarios. They are supportive of the concept of any setting that would allow those best practices to materialize. Some 20 years later we have lots of questions, some answers. One thing we know is that in a choice-rich state, while a lot of policy attention is directed at charter schools, Arizona's parents are still overwhelmingly choosing their neighborhood Public Schools.

Ted Simons: Why are they doing it? That's 80%.

Lisa Graham Keegan: It's about 18% public school students are in charter schools in Arizona. Andrew's right about that. They choose a transitional school because, remember, they have only been around for 20 years. What we want is parents choosing excellent schools, Ted. Hopefully this bifurcation begins to go away and we start to focus on who's an excellent school. Last year Arizona charter schools, 73% of them either scored A or B grades or improved a grade. In Arizona if you're a charter school C or below, you're busy going out of business, because that wasn't the deal. We have a lot of Arizona schools that did not make the grade. We don't just have Basis, which is a fabulous school. We have a lot of high-performing charter schools and district schools that serve very low-income kids. That should be the bifurcation, excellence and everybody else.

Ted Simons: Describe a typical charter school.

Andrew Morrill: Well, it is innovative, a learning lab. I'm going take Lisa at her word. I don't know that it's necessarily the differences so much in the design of instruction. I think that, you know, I'm going to -- pardon me a moment for the analogy. But I'm a die-hard U. of A. Wildcat fan. It's never about the students on the field when it comes down to the ASU rivalry, it's about the fans for the other side. Sometimes I think it's like that for the charter and district. We lose sight of what might be some common ground, where the policy enthusiasm is. I will take a charter schoolteacher devoted, wanting to do right by students and say the mission of that individual teacher is largely the same as the mission of an individual district teacher. But the policy arena has complicated this. It has bifurcated in really sort of a tactic better reserved for seafood, creating a kind of peel and eat mentality. Charter against district, district against charter, when in reality we have major funding issues. We have a quest going on for the best practices, opening doors to all students. That's the mission of our public schools.

Ted Simons: Same question: I'm not sure if you quite got the -- I think a one-sentence answer within that paragraph.

Andrew Morrill: I'm not going to play the what's different, there are a lot of similarities and differences.

Ted Simons: My question was describe a typical charter school.

Lisa Graham Keegan: There isn't one, nor is there a typical district school. This is really important for parents to understand. You should know the grade on your school but that's just proxy for a lot of things. You should be in an A or B school, if not you ought to be asking pretty serious questions, there is no typical school anymore.

Ted Simons: Okay. Answer me this. Can charters pick and choose students?

Lisa Graham Keegan: They may not. If they are doing it, it's illegal. They have to take whoever comes. You heard in the preview on basis, there's a lottery system. They are oversubscribed, they have a waiting list, they can't accept kids. A huge waiting list, they serve over 80% low-income kids. They are a district school. They do not look like other district schools. Do -- and parents want to get in there, go figure. It doesn't look typical, trust me. They are doing some really innovative things. That's the leadership and teaching team at the school.

Andrew Morrill: Here's the term. Over time institutions develop good practices, sound practices and poor practices. Is everybody operating above board? We'd like to think so. We hear reports all the time of a certain kind of class management, student body management. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that there aren't flaws in the district public education system. Some of the selectivity does seem to follow with the most celebrated charter schools. There are also examples -- and I think it is true, there's no one charter school prototype. There's no one district school prototype. There are questions that both systems raise. How are we going to educate well every student in Arizona? And how are we going to make sure that the doors of a public school are open to everyone?

Ted Simons: So are you saying some charter schools do pick and choose a little bit more?

Andrew Morrill: I'm saying an institution with as many players, you hear stories again and again, patterns of behavior that would account for some of the student management in some. You've got to be careful about generalizations. Just about the time you point to one charter school student body, you find another made up completely of minority students, educating students better than siblings were educated, same family, different outcome. I think we have to be careful. It's really important in Arizona with an overwhelming choice by parents of one type, the district neighborhood public school, I'd rather ask why are so many policymakers acting as if that's somehow the wrong choice, doing everything they can to kind of steer people over to make their choices. Is this really about parent choice? Or is it a choice informed by somebody's political agenda?

Lisa Graham Keegan: Well, the growth, Andrew, is all on the side of charter schools. If they are only building public charter schools, there are a couple of districts still building schools. It's not a static system. Nor I do think we should be betting on one or the other. I know it's boring if we sit here and agree a little bit, but I don't know there's going to be that much disagreement anymore, Ted. If we focus on exceptional schools, high quality schools, that's what we should be focusing on, Ted. Whats practices look like to do that? Answer though questions and you come up with some kind of hybrid model ultimately.

Ted Simons: Are charters school getting the choices you hoped to see when you helped start all this?

Lisa Graham Keegan: If they are A he and B or increasing their grades. Yes, they are getting there. I think that kind of pressure is falling on the district side, as well. You're seeing a lot of initiatives to raise achievement. Once we went to an A through F grading system in Arizona, people started paying a lot more attention, it's easier to understand. Until we're there, not yet.

Andrew Morrill: The questions I would say that still exist, not looking at any one charter school in particular but across the industry in Arizona, how do we account for the fact that for instance Arizona has some of the highest percentages of free and reduced lunches in our public student population. Some 45% of students are ELL. We know growing populations of high needs students, Arizona's economy is actually producing students at the poverty level the way it used to produce cotton and citrus unfortunately. That's sort of happened one session, one decision at a time. You don't find the student bodies of very many charter schools made up of the mix of students that make up the typical district schools.

Lisa Graham Keegan: I disagree.

Andrew Morrill: It really is.

Lisa Graham Keegan: Go down to Phoenix, South Phoenix.

Andrew Morrill: You'll find individuals but you won't across the city. When you add up the population of students in the charter schools you don't get the same representation of the challenged students and needs, the ELL learners, some of the other minority makeup.

Ted Simons: Please.

Lisa Graham Keegan: We'll talk about this. When we first started public charter schools they were massively overrepresented by low-income and ethnic minorities because those kids didn't have great choices. Now I think Andrew is right at the margins of some areas. But it's absolutely not true, they break 60% district, 40% charter. We have 100 schools in Arizona that serve a number of low-income kids. 40% charter, 60% district. They are focused on a practice that is excellent.

Andrew Morrill: A gap of certain success stories, certain schools exactly as Lisa described. Regrettably, the ones celebrated by our current governor, and good luck to him, not exactly that kind of student bodies.

Lisa Graham Keegan: Not true, he met with these low-income students, not true.

Ted Simons: Charter schools are here to stay.

Lisa Graham Keegan: We agree!

Ted Simons: There you go. Thanks for joining us.

Andrew Morrill: Thanks very much.

Lisa Graham Keegan:Former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Arizona; Andrew Morrill:President, Arizona Education Association;

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