Arizona Charter School Students Start Lower but Finish Higher

Published May 1, 2004

One might describe the national charter school movement as one step forward, two steps back.

One step forward: Washington state just became the 41st state to enact charter legislation. (Washington DC has such legislation as well.)

Two steps back: Opponents in Massachusetts–where 13,000 children are on waiting lists to enroll in charter schools–nevertheless want a moratorium on charters. Alabama recently defeated charter legislation, claiming charter schools are “unproven experiments.”

In Arizona, however, a steady pace is winning the race. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the state’s charter school law. Today, 491 charter schools educate nearly 10 percent of Arizona’s students, with most parents consistently giving their children’s charter schools an “A” or “A+.” A new study by the Goldwater Institute suggests those grades are well deserved.

The study finds charter school students typically begin with lower test scores than their counterparts in traditional public schools, showing charters don’t simply “cream” the better students. Despite this initial deficit, charter school students show higher overall annual achievement growth. Charter students who completed the 12th grade surpass traditional public school students on SAT-9 Reading tests.

Arizona charter schools do more with less, since they receive only 80 percent of traditional public school per-pupil funds.

The Goldwater study, “Comparison of Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools on Retention, School Switching, and Achievement Growth,” examines nearly 158,000 SAT-9 Reading test scores of more than 60,000 students attending 873 charter and traditional public schools statewide over a three-year period.

The study also finds achievement growth varies by grade level. In the elementary grades, charter school students exhibited faster achievement growth than traditional public school students. Achievement growth in the middle grades is similar for both kinds of students, while high school achievement growth is higher for traditional public school students.

The authors of the study, Lewis C. Solmon of Human Resources Policy Corporation and Pete Goldschmidt of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evaluation, suggest the faster achievement growth in the early years is because elementary charters are more likely to focus on academics. Middle and high school charters, by contrast, generally serve students seeking vocational training, who have been out of school, who are struggling with learning or behavioral problems, or who have been in the juvenile justice system. That means charters are reaching at-risk students “who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks,” explain the authors.

Arizona’s charter law encourages such educational options. Arizona does not cap the number of charter schools that can open, and it allows multiple charter authorizers: local school districts, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, and the Arizona Department of Education.

Having multiple authorizers helps prevent the process from becoming politicized and prevents any one group from becoming too powerful. With a simple application process that is easy to navigate, educators are free to start schools in their communities where the need is greatest. Parents, teachers, and school personnel open roughly 70 percent of Arizona’s charter schools.

Even Penny Kotterman, president of the Arizona Education Association, admits charter schools have excelled at serving “niche groups,” students in alternative education, or those at risk of dropping out.

“I think we’ve come to a peaceful coexistence in most cases,” she said.

How do traditional public schools respond to charter school competition? Recent findings from Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby show “charter competition induced [Arizona’s] public schools to improve their productivity and achievement … relative to the schools’ own past performance and relative to gains made, over the same period, by schools that were not subjected to charter competition.” Overall, traditional public schools facing even modest charter competition raised their annual improvement on NAEP scores by 1.4 percentile points in fourth-grade reading and math, without spending a penny more.

Vicki Murray, Ph.D., is an education analyst at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The March 15, 2004 Goldwater Institute study by Lewis C. Solmon and Pete Goldschmidt, “Comparison of Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools on Retention, School Switching, and Achievement Growth,” is available online at