A recent Christian Science Monitor article featured one of the nation's most successful charter school stories, Cambridge Academy in Mesa, Ariz. The 88-student K-3 school not only has a link to Michigan, but also much to teach Michigan policy-makers about how to improve education through greater competition.
Michigan native Linda Gonzalez, Cambridge Academy's founder and principal, received both her bachelor and master's degrees in science in education from Michigan State University. One of her formative experiences at MSU was working in the university's reading clinic with children who have learning difficulties. This inspired her to become a first-grade teacher in Okemos.
Later, when she moved to Arizona, Gonzalez immediately noticed a less rigid, more innovative atmosphere in that state's public school system. Over time, she came to attribute this atmosphere to the more hands-off approach Arizona state government takes toward the operation and management of educational affairs. Consequently, competition-the hallmark of America's vibrant private-sector economy-was allowed to work its way through the system, with impressive results.
How does Arizona foster this competition? Arizona's relatively loose charter school law has helped it become the national leader in the number of charters. Michigan lags states such as Arizona in part because our state Legislature, in a compromise with charter school opponents, placed a "cap" of 150 on the number of charters that can be authorized by the institutions with the most incentive and least political resistance to do so: public universities. (Michigan school districts can authorize as many charter schools as they please, but since they are essentially creating competition for themselves, most choose not to begin charters.) No charter "cap" exists in Arizona, and as a result, greater numbers of charters are providing competition for traditional public schools and the state's educational quality is improving accordingly.
Another competition-enhancing distinction between the two states' charter-school laws is in their respective certification requirements. The state of Michigan imposes the same onerous accreditation and certification rules upon traditional public and charter school teachers alike, whereas Arizona's charter school law does not require charter schoolteachers to undergo the cumbersome state-certification process. This enables charters to seek out many professionals who would love to teach but are put off by the expensive and time-consuming requirements for certification, requirements many reformers believe are unnecessary. Thus, Arizona charters are able to draw experienced teachers from diverse positions in business, nonprofit, and other sectors of the economy. This flexibility also helps Arizona charters be more competitive with traditional public schools than are their counterparts in Michigan.
At Cambridge Academy, however, Gonzalez voluntarily chooses to require her teaching staff to be certified, and all Cambridge teachers hold degrees in elementary education. According to data from www.greatschools.net, an online guide to K-12 schools in California and Arizona, nearly a third of Cambridge's teachers hold master's degrees as well. The results: Greatschools.net reports that in 2000, the average reading score for students at Cambridge reached the 90th percentile for reading scores statewide, and the average math score reached the 88th percentile in math. (Her school has proved so successful, in fact, that Gonzalez is opening another charter school, Cambridge Academy East, in August 2002. This new charter will serve 308 students.)
Who could argue with such results? According to Gonzalez, public school boards resent charter schools because, in Arizona as in Michigan, state dollars follow the students. If a lot of students leave a traditional public school for a charter, it puts a very real dent in the traditional school's budget. But if real consequences did not follow the failure to attract and keep students, it is doubtful whether competition would be able to motivate schools toward excellence. "If you compete, you are held accountable," Gonzalez says.
Like Michigan's charter schools, Arizona's charters are not without their problems. What makes success difficult in both states is the lack of support by public officials and others who feel threatened by a movement that has the potential to force real reforms on a sluggish school system-reforms that system has been reluctant to make during the past several decades of dissatisfaction with educational quality.
Linda Gonzalez says she is able to succeed because she has the freedom to accomplish her goals. Although the process is slow, the children of Arizona are beginning to reap the benefits that come when government resists the urge to micromanage local affairs and instead places responsibility back where it belongs-in the hands of parents and educators.
None of this is to say that Michigan students are not benefiting from charter schools, too. Over 150 charter schools throughout Michigan now offer tens of thousands of children an alternative to traditional public schools. Whether this relatively limited amount of competition will lead ultimately to the kind of improvement being observed in Arizona may depend on our lawmakers' willingness to take a second, more critical look at the role of government in education.