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Our View: End debate over charter schools, learn what we can from the best

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Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2011 5:15 am

From the start, Arizona’s charter schools were pitted against the state’s school districts as lawmakers created them to force competition and stimulate an education marketplace. So it was inevitable that an us-versus-them mentality would develop as traditional public schools suddenly found that their students — and the state dollars that accompany them — had other public schooling options.

In their earliest years, there was much to criticize about these privately operated, public schools that were freed from many of the state regulations governing school districts. For instance, in the beginning Arizona, in a frantic push to open as many charters as possible, foolishly awarded start-up money to questionable people — even some with criminal backgrounds — who lacked education and business expertise. As a result, many charters closed, sometimes in the middle of the school year, leaving upset parents scrambling to find new schools for their kids.

But now, 17 years after former Gov. Fife Symington signed the landmark charter school law, the movement has matured, problematic loopholes in the law have been corrected, and these little-schools-that-could are showing great promise.

Tribune education writer Michelle Reese reported last week that a new international study ranked a number of Arizona charter schools, including Tempe Preparatory Academy, among the best schools in the world. The study, using academic achievement data from 25 countries, not only compared every school district and charter school to global peers, but also listed the top 60 U.S. schools or districts. The only Arizona entries on that top 60 list were charter schools.

Tempe Prep, one of Arizona’s oldest charters, has been producing top academic results since it opened its doors in 1996. Those results, when compared to district schools, have often been criticized by those who say the charter gets to cherry-pick its students. Last week, Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, the current headmaster of Tempe Prep, said his school is more diverse than people think.

“We are not a private school with the best and brightest ... Our students are picked by lottery. Our incoming student base looks just like the incoming student base in surrounding schools,” he said.

But Tempe Prep does differ greatly from the typical East Valley district high school with 2,000 to 3,000 students: At about 400-some students, Tempe Prep keeps class sizes small. Teachers, with a maximum of 22 students per class, teach just four classes a day.

In that smaller school setting, all students are held to a high standard. They read historic papers and literature such as Supreme Court documents and “The Iliad,” sometimes in Greek. And students in danger of failing receive mandatory tutoring.

“Any kid can do this,” Hallman said. “Do we have students who come to us not ready? Absolutely. We do everything we can to prepare them.”

It’s not surprising that teachers in large district schools might deride these results. And they are right: The comparisons are not always fair. Each Tempe Prep teacher is responsible for 88 students, while each teacher in high schools like Tempe’s Corona del Sol, Mesa’s Red Mountain or Gilbert’s Mesquite could have 150-some students.

Now that we’ve seen what charters like Tempe Prep can do, it’s time for Arizona to start asking whether the success of such small schools really can be achieved on a mass scale. Because that’s what school districts do: Educate the masses. Charter schools do not. If what works in the charters — such as smaller class sizes — would improve public education, then how do we make that happen for all children? And at what cost to taxpayers?

Arizona’s charter school enrollment is continuing to grow. According to the state Department of Education, another 10,000 students entered charters this year, bringing the total to about 134,000.

The parents of these students decided it was worth their time and effort to research options and enroll their children in the best school for them — even if it’s not conveniently located where they live.

It’s time we put the same time and effort into replicating the success of charter schools like Tempe Prep for all of Arizona’s children.

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