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Report says performance of Arizona's charter schools is mixed

Eighth-grader Albert Susanto of Scottsdale, Ariz., collects samples for an AP environmental science class.
Eighth-grader Albert Susanto of Scottsdale, Ariz., collects samples for an AP environmental science class. (Laura Segall For The Washington Post)

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. -- Here, where suburb meets desert, students are clambering amid the cacti to dig soil samples and take notes on flora and fauna. In an old movie complex in nearby Chandler, others are dissecting a Renaissance tract on human nature. On a South Phoenix campus with a National Football League connection, still others are learning how to pass a basket of bread and help a lady into her chair.

These are just three charter schools among a multitude in the most wide-open public education market in America.

Arizona's flourishing charter school movement underscores the popular appeal of unfettered school choice and the creativity of some educational entrepreneurs. But the state also offers a cautionary lesson as President Obama pushes to dismantle barriers to charter schools elsewhere: It is difficult to promote quantity and quality at the same time.

Under a 1994 law that strongly favors charter schools, 500 of them operate in this state, teaching more than 100,000 students. Those totals account for a quarter of Arizona's public schools and a tenth of its public school enrollment, giving charters a larger market share here than in any other state.

But a Stanford University research institute reported in June that Arizona charter students did not show as much academic progress as their peers in traditional public schools. Charter backers dispute the study's methods and findings but agree that schools vary widely in quality.

"There are some excellent, excellent charter schools in Arizona," said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. "There's a good, strong cluster of really high-performing schools. There are a whole bunch that are mucking around [in the middle], and a big cluster that are not doing well."

The District of Columbia, with 28,000 charter school students, has a booming charter market. Maryland's is modest but growing. Virginia has a handful of charter schools, none in the D.C. area, but Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) hopes to add many more.

'Wild West of charters'

With public funding, independent management and no teachers union contracts, Arizona's charter schools educate every which way: from the Montessori method to what might be called the No-Method method, from math academies to arts academies, from distance learning to hands-on learning. They pop up in strip malls and abandoned churches. They compete for enrollment in suburbs and barrios and on Indian reservations.

"We're the Wild West of charters, aren't we?" said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers union. "You can find just about any type of charter in Arizona."

A spin this month through the charterland of metropolitan Phoenix found a school for the homeless shoehorned into an old Volkswagen dealership downtown; a new high school in Tempe that gives laptops to students so they can work on campus or off; a K-8 charter next door that escaped bankruptcy a few years ago and has hopscotched from site to site; and an accelerated math-science school on an old University of Phoenix campus in Chandler that caters to the high-tech community.

In this affluent suburb, Basis Scottsdale is a top choice for parents and students who can't get enough Advanced Placement. The school of about 600 in grades 5 through 12 requires all students to take at least six AP tests by the end of junior year. It pays for the testing and counts AP scores in final course grades, which is unusual.

Cindy Ivy, 48, an occupational therapist, said she learned about Basis through a newspaper story pointed out by her son Calvin, now in seventh grade. "Why would I not check this school out?" she said. "It's free. It's ranked so high."


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