by David Safier
A letter to the editor in the Republic brings up an important point. With populations in Arizona stabilizing or shrinking, students moving to charters are creating empty classrooms in district schools. A half full school costs more per student than a school at or near capacity. So districts which have been tightening their belts in the face of the last few years' starvation-diet budget cuts are suffering from dis-economies of scale they can ill afford.
If charters were a genuinely better alternative, I wouldn't be as concerned about the districts' problems. But charters are the same mixed bag as district schools — some good, some mediocre, some bad. A recent Stanford study shows the achievement of students at charter schools in Arizona is a bit lower than similar students at district schools. And truly bad charters can stink in ways district schools can't match.
The fact is, charters are the flavor of the month. Parents often put their kids there because it's something new, and because charters tend to have nifty advertising. The name "Oak Knoll College Preparatory Academy" [I made that name up] on a slick brochure for a new charter school promising education to rival the best private schools in the country is quite an incentive for parents to make the switch. Even if the school turns out to be no better or a little worse than the school the child left behind, once a parent puts a child there, inertia will favor the child staying.
Legislators who genuinely cared about education would deal with the problem in a few different ways. Reasonable funding for education would ease the districts' pain and allow them to keep the underenrolled schools open awhile longer until they see if students will shift back to the district through choice or population growth. Greater oversight of charters would help weed out the truly awful ones and help insure that students who transfer to charters will be getting a decent education. (We have more charter schools per population than any state in the country because it's so easy to open one, so closing down some of the bad ones is long overdue.) A combination of the two remedies would make this state a whole lot more child- and education-friendly than it is.
NOTE: Until I can come up with a better term, I'm stuck with the clumsy term "district schools" to describe the non-charters. Charters are public schools, so "public schools" doesn't make the distinction. Some district schools are non-traditional, so I can't call them "traditional schools." So "district schools" will have to do for now. Conservatives, of course, favor the term "government schools," because they hate school districts and teachers' unions and have programmed their Frankenstein's monster right wing voters to repeat endlessly, "Government . . . B-a-a-d! Private sector . . . G-o-o-o-d!"