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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

The Thinking Behind Arizona's Charter Movement

Arizona's charter school legislation—often cited as exemplary—illustrates how three ideologies behind the movement play out in practical terms.

With U.S. policymakers increasingly receptive to new models of public education, charter schools have emerged as one of the most popular approaches to reform. Thirty-four states have approved charter school legislation, and a dozen others are debating this reform. Federal, state, and local policymakers have jumped on the charter school bandwagon, in part because its proponents come from diverse constituencies, including Republicans, Democrats, teacher organizations, business groups, and parent associations. The uniting forces are a general concern with the academic performance of pupils in district public schools and a belief that charter schools can improve the situation.
For charter school reform, like most education policies, the devil is in the details. Proponents offer various rationales, and the rationale expressed in the legislation depends on which key actors—legislators, governors, interest groups, and others—have the most power to define the problem and design a remedial policy. Consequently, the dynamics of the debate change with every state context, and policies developed in one state differ dramatically from those created elsewhere.
To understand the differences, it helps to look at three underlying ideologies that motivate groups to support charter school reform—antibureaucracy, market-based education, and teacher professionalism—and to see how a specific state policy reflects these ideologies. Arizona's charter school legislation, frequently cited as the least restrictive in the United States, provides a useful example.


The antibureaucracy ideology contends that state education codes, frequently pushing 1,000 pages, combined with district rules and an expanding slate of federal regulations, are choking out innovation. By legislating an ever-growing number of "best practice" methods and penalizing any deviation, various agencies have created a top-down system that preserves the status quo. Consequently, some charter school advocates "support the notion that educational innovations develop best from decentralized, bottom up sources" (Loveless & Jasin, 1998, p. 14). Policy provisions that allow charter schools to seek waivers from burdensome rules and regulations create the potential for "bottom up sources" to develop innovations that could ultimately increase academic achievement.
Provisions in the Arizona charter school statute reflect the antibureaucratic intent of policymakers. The most obvious exempts charter schools from all state statutes and rules relating to schools, governing boards, and school districts. Charter schools still must comply with federal statutes and general state statutes that involve health, safety, and civil rights. But this blanket waiver releases charter schools from much of the bureaucratic pressure that district schools experience.
In keeping with the antibureaucratic ideology, the Arizona Department of Education and the two state-level sponsoring boards (the State Board of Education and the State Board for Charter Schools) have taken a hands-off approach to monitoring charter schools. Both sponsoring boards require charter schools to complete an annual written report demonstrating progress toward the objectives written in the charter contract, but there is no formal evaluation of this self-report. Moreover, neither board monitors compliance with the charter contract, and contact between the charter school and the sponsoring board may occur only once a year.
The Arizona Department of Education has also lowered the reporting requirements for financial record keeping. District schools must follow the Uniform System of Financial Records for reporting financial information. However, charter schools follow a modified version that requires less specificity, reducing the time spent on paperwork. In addition, 22 charter schools (all sponsored by the State Board for Charter Schools) have been granted a waiver from following either the Uniform System of Financial Records or the charter school version. These schools need follow only generally accepted accounting principles.
The Department of Education has also been passive in monitoring charter schools to compensate for the lack of central district oversight. Special education offers a prime example. Statistics for the 1995–96 school year show that the 46 charter schools sponsored by state-level boards spent $503,707 on special education services out of $35,495,925 received from combined state and federal funds (Arizona Department of Education, 1997). This amounted to 1.4 percent of the charter school budget. District public schools spent slightly over 10 percent of their total operating budgets on special needs services ($387,385,037 of $3,805,813,156).
Department of Education administrators did not monitor the charter schools to determine the causes of this discrepancy. Although the Special Education unit of the Department of Education has since developed an outreach program for charter schools, an increase in the number of charter schools and a decrease in staff mean that only 25 charter school visits will take place each year.

Market-Based Education

A second ideology driving charter school reform is a market-based hypothesis. Critics contend that district schools continue to exist regardless of educational outcomes because they have a monopoly on public school students. Charter schools are schools of choice; they do not have a captive population. Thus, if district and charter schools must compete for students, market forces will ensure that schools with improved student outcomes will retain students, proponents believe. Conversely, schools that fail to improve outcomes will close when enrollment declines. By injecting competition into the environment, some charter school advocates believe, the quality of the product, in this case education, will improve (Chubb & Moe, 1990).
Arizona policymakers have taken explicit steps to ensure a competitive market system. Purposely reducing the role of bureaucrats means that parents of charter school students have to take a more prominent role in school oversight. No longer can a parent assume that personnel from the Arizona Department of Education are monitoring what goes on in these public schools. This is precisely what supporters of the marked-based ideology envisioned—parents as the primary accountability mechanism.
Legislators argued that parents and students should have as many choices as possible among charter schools, with selection based on a child's educational needs. If a school meets their expectations, parents will keep their children enrolled. Conversely, if parents are not satisfied, they will remove their children, enrollment will dwindle, and the school will close. This is how the system is supposed to work.
Policymakers in Arizona noted that states with charter school policies permitting only district boards to approve new schools granted significantly fewer charters than states with legislation that included a state-level sponsoring board. Accordingly, they endowed the State Board of Education, which has responsibility for all public schools, to sponsor new charter schools. They then created a second state-level sponsoring board, the State Board for Charter Schools, that focuses solely on charter school issues.
Policymakers placed few limits on the number of new schools that could be approved each year. The Arizona statute allows districts to sponsor an unlimited number of schools each year and entitles each state sponsoring board to approve 25 schools a year.
Policymakers included two additional provisions to jump-start this educational market. First, any legal entity, including sole proprietorships, partnerships, not-for-profit corporations, and for-profit corporations, is eligible to receive a charter. Second, in addition to new start-ups and public school conversions, private schools may convert to charter school status.
In creating this market, Arizona policymakers expected some charter schools to fail. To steady the emerging market and address concerns related to financial stability, they created a million-dollar stimulus fund for start-up capital. To defray start-up costs, each charter school may apply for up to $100,000 from the state fund each year for two consecutive years. Policymakers did not expect these grants to cover all the costs, so they added several amendments to increase the likelihood that charter school operators could qualify for external financial support. For example, one amendment makes the charter school contract effective for 15 years. In contrast, most states allow a 3- to 5-year term before the charter school contract must be renewed. The Arizona provision allows charter school operators to project a longer revenue stream when securing loans from private lenders.
Arizona policy also gives charter school operators considerable flexibility in creating governing boards. The law requires each charter school to have a governing board but does not specify who must serve. Consequently, some governing boards may consist of as few as three individuals—including the director. Usually the director is a powerful figure, and the board defers to his or her judgment when making policy (Garn & Stout, 1998).
Although democratic participation suffers, this type of governance makes good business sense. Many Arizona charter schools are chartered to individuals, and directors see themselves as business owners who are financially responsible if the school fails. This governance structure gives the charter school operator additional control over school operations and expenditures, promoting financial stability.
The Arizona legislation states, "Any and all property accumulated by the charter school shall remain the property of the school." This allows charter school operators to own the property purchased for the school. There is some worry that individuals will charter a school; use public tax dollars to buy land, buildings, and equipment; and, at the end of the 15-year contract, not renew the contract but still own the property. Despite the potential for questionable use of public funds, policymakers have been interested in allowing charter schools to have a solid financial backing as they seek external funding.
Two provisions contribute to the long-term financial stability of Arizona charter schools. One is the independent financial status granted to charter schools. Those sponsored by either state board are funded directly from the state treasury. Charter school operators are free to spend funds, contract, and incur debt with few restrictions. A second factor is current-year funding. In contrast to district public schools, whose funding is based on prior-year enrollment, state-sponsored charter schools receive funding on the basis of the enrollment in the current year. Financial autonomy and real-time funding increase the potential for charter school stability.
The Arizona legislation has succeeded in increasing the number of educational choices for parents and students. Depart-ment of Education officials report that during the 1997–98 school year, approximately 25,000 students enrolled in 240 charter school campuses—almost 5 percent of Arizona's total public school population. But the amazing statistic is the rate of growth. Enrollment climbed from approximately 7,000 during the 1995–96 school year to 17,000 in 1996–97 to 25,000 in 1997–98.

Teacher Professionalism

The third ideology, grounded in the notion of teacher professionalism, assumes that because of their expertise, teachers—not administrators—should make and implement decisions that affect learning in the classroom. Thus, for some proponents, charter schools are about valuing the expertise of teachers and giving them control over instruction—factors that could ultimately bring about increased student achievement (Budde, 1988).
Although this ideology is behind many U.S. charter school policies, teacher professionalism was rejected in Arizona. In fact, one can argue that the Arizona charter school policy has devalued teacher professionalism. Charter school directors have tremendous autonomy when making personnel decisions. Charter school teachers are not protected by tenure provisions and can be hired and fired with minimal due process requirements. In addition, charter school teachers are not required to have state certification or even meet minimal educational standards. Thus, charter school directors can hire from a large pool of applicants.
However, removing tenure protections and basic competency standards affects the quality of the applicants. Instead of valuing teachers as professionals, some charter schools treat teachers like low-wage workers. For example, one charter school with multiple campuses paid teachers $9 an hour without overtime or benefits (Garn & Stout, 1998). Some of its teachers lacked college degrees. This example does not represent most charter schools in Arizona, but its existence illustrates the rejection of the teacher professionalism ideology.

Deconstructing the Monolith

Although proponents of charter schools hold up Arizona's policy as model legislation, those interested in this prominent reform should be aware of its underlying complexity. The "charter school movement" cannot be viewed as a single entity. Rather, an examination of the motivation behind charter school policies around the United States reveals significant differences. Far from being monolithic, the charter school movement reflects various, sometimes competing, ideologies.

Arizona Department of Education. (1997). Annual report of the Arizona superintendent of public instruction. Phoenix, AZ: Author.

Budde, R. (1988). Education by charter. Andover, MA: Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast & Islands.

Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics markets and America's schools. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Garn, G., & Stout, R. (1998). Arizona charter schools. Phoenix, AZ: Arizona School Boards Association.

Loveless, T., & Jasin, C. (1998). Starting from scratch: Political and organizational challenges facing charter schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 34(l), 9–30.

End Notes

1 One charter school spent $217,760 of the $503,707 total (43.2 percent).

Gregg Garn has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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