It's no surprise Arizona is one of the leading states in the country when it comes to the number of students in charter schools.

Since the charter school movement began here more than 15 years ago, Arizona has consistently been a leader. According to a report out last Wednesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Arizona is No. 4 this school year in opening new charter schools (35 total), behind California (100), Florida (76) and Wisconsin (40).

Arizona also saw 10,500 additional students enter charter schools, a jump to more than 135,000 charter school students. There are 524 charter schools now in operation in the state.

But there's another area Arizona is taking a lead in: closing charter schools that are under performing or not meeting financial obligations.

According to the same study, Arizona was No. 2 in the country last year for closing charters (22), behind California (34).

A big reason Arizona had so many last year was because it was the first year schools were up for their 15-year contract renewal with the state, said Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

Charter schools are privately operated, but publicly funded. They contract with the state to provide free public education to students. In Arizona, their contracts come up for renewal after 15 years, and part of that process is demonstrating that they have improved students' academic achievement.

In 2007, the state Board for Charter Schools began working on a way to better measure charter schools' academic performance. That was put into place in 2010 when the first charter schools came up for renewals (schools also undergo a five-year and 10-year review, as well as a first-year examination).

The measurement looks at how schools are doing in improving student achievement, as well as test scores on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards.

"That is the statutory purpose of charter schools, to improvement achievement," Sigmund said. "It's not just to have a market of choice. It's to have good choice."

Not all of the 22 schools that closed last year were non-renewed based on achievement, she said. Some may had financial issues. Some may have surrendered their charter as they faced inevitable revocation.

It's not a "one and done" situation when a charter school gets into trouble, she said. Schools may get a chance to make improvements, and sometimes that's where the association steps in.

"We're providing coaching and technical assistance," she said. "We tell them the hammer is coming down."

The national report points out that more than 2 million students are attending charter schools across the country - 200,000 more than last year.

And some 400,000 students are on waiting lists to get into a charter school.

More than 500 new public charter schools opened their doors in the 2011-12 school year across the country, according to the study. This year marks the largest single-year increase ever recorded in terms of the number of additional students attending charters.

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