Arizona Charter Students Are Outpacing Their District Counterparts on Achievement Tests

Question: What does the state of Michigan call schools with 37, 46, or 48 percent of their students receiving passing composite scores on the MEAP exam?   Answer: award-winning schools.  

That's right: In the last year, three schools received the state's "Golden Apple" or "Blue Ribbon" honors for student achievement, despite the fact that less than one-half of their students earned passing composite scores on the MEAP.  This absurdity underscores the folly of relying on the state to provide effective oversight for public schools.  It also makes the current legislative debate about subjecting charter schools to greater government oversight baffling. 

Will more government regulation really bring greater accountability to charter schools?  Consider that no public school has ever been closed, and no district ever lost its franchise, for failure to perform academically, even though state officials have had the authority to close schools for poor performance since 1993.  On the other hand, there is mounting evidence to suggest that less government regulation and greater reliance on market forces lead to increased student achievement, especially in the charter school arena. 

A March 2001 study on Arizona charter schools, conducted by the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, provides the first comprehensive examination of the impact charters are having on student achievement.  This study is especially significant because until recently, much of the information assessing charter schools has been anecdotal for several reasons.  First, charter schools are a relatively new sector of the education market, with the most mature schools being no more than 10 years old.  Second, impact studies require extensive data, including multiple years of student-level data, and most states—including Michigan—have not committed to collecting these kinds of data.

The study outlines many important facts about Arizona's charter school climate.  Arizona has the most charter schools of any state, with more than 450 in operation this fall, and the largest group of mature charter schools.  Arizona charter students—and all district students—are required each year to take the Stanford 9 exam, a standardized student achievement test.  And each student's test score is tracked from year to year with other important data attached, such as income, sex, ethnicity, school of attendance, and special education status.  This combination of factors yields a data set of 60,000 student-level test scores from 1997-99—a data set large enough to analyze and to produce conclusions with certainty.

One of the study's conclusions is that choice and competition engendered by charter schools is providing more efficient oversight of schools than is government.  Analysis of Arizona test scores shows charter school students are making an average of one more month of academic gain per year than similar district school students.  More importantly, students in charter schools perform better the longer they attend the charter school.  This upward trend is surprising because too many people have grown accustomed to making excuses for test scores that drop the longer a student attends a district school.

The Arizona study's data also dispel a particularly shopworn argument against school choice—namely that students changing schools all the time is disruptive to the educational process.  The goal of school choice, of course, is to provide parents with the maximum freedom to find the best school possible for their children.  And such freedom necessarily entails greater changes in student populations as students migrate from poorly performing schools to better ones—and perhaps even to still better ones.  But far from being disruptive, school-changing students are performing well:  The data from Arizona demonstrate that students who are moving from charter school to charter school still do better academically than students who remain in the same district school.  In other words, mobility within the charter school sector is better, academically speaking, than stability in district schools.

Finally, the Arizona data also show that competition from charter schools is not "creaming" the best students from the district schools, another argument often raised against allowing parents a wider choice of educational options.  In fact, charter school students start at a lower point in the test scores than district students and they make up the gap over a few years. 

The positive portrait of charter school accountability painted by the Arizona study should help reframe Michigan's debate over government regulation of charter schools.  Arizona may be called the "Wild West of Charter Schools," but the evidence shows that schools produce better results under the invisible hand of choice and competition, not the government's clumsy thumb.

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(Mary Gifford is director of leadership development with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliation are cited.)

Summary

A comprehensive new study of Arizona charter schools suggests that proposals to increase government regulation of charter schools in Michigan could stifle, not encourage, student achievement and school accountability.

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