When is a charter school a bad idea?

Linda Oyon

Hint: the answer is not,  “never.” It is a bad idea, according to education blogger Peter Green, “when charters disrupt and displace [district] public schools.” I would add that often, these district schools are the hubs of their communities so charters contribute to disrupting these communities as well.

Case in point is a new charter school (Legacy Traditional School) being built in Glendale, Arizona. Scheduled to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, the new campus will serve 1,200 K-8 students at the northeast corner of 67th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. Sounds good, right? Problem is, this school is being built within the boundaries of the Peoria Unified School District, within two miles of 10 of their “A” or “B” rated elementary schools (50 percent of PUSD’s schools are rated “A”, another 25 percent are rated “B.)  When PUSD has the capacity to serve the 1,200 students Legacy hopes to eventually attract, why is this school necessary, or even in the best interest of this community?When the charter school concept was first embraced back in 1988, it was as “a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” In Cologne, Germany, Albert Shanker visited a public school where teachers made the critical decisions about what and how to teach and the school had students with a broad mix of abilities, family incomes, and ethnicity. He said charter schools could “reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” Shanker also believed charter schools should be unionized because of the critical role he believed unions played in democratic societies.

Unfortunately, today’s charter schools are an entirely different animal than Shanker envisioned. They are more autocratic (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income) than ever and only about 12 percent of charters provide their teachers union representation. No wonder an “astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools.”

They are now seen as “a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education.” Whether intentionally or not, charters have served to re-segregate education to a level not seen since the 1960s. A side benefit for the corporate reformers was also no doubt, the weakening of teacher unions and therefore less democracy in our schools and communities. All this eventually brought us to where we are today. Instead of charter schools augmenting and serving as “laboratory partners to public schools”, they are now in direct competition for students and the dollars they bring. Make no mistake, today’s charters – whether they are for-profit or non-profit – are as much about making a profit, as they are about educating children.

What suffers from this “competition” mindset is the collaboration between schools, overall efficient and effective use of available education funding, the richness of the educational experience that truly diverse schools can bring, and the strong school climate vibrant teacher voices can bring. This diversity isn’t just valuable for our students of color, but for their white counterparts as well. Those students who’ve experienced more diversity will be more successful in the ever-increasingly global economy.

So, here we are. A brand new charter school is under construction, right in the middle of 10 excellent district schools with plenty of capacity. As Legacy Traditional School is a non-profit entity, I suspect the school is funded with a bond issued by the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority (quasi-private so the taxpayer is not on the hook.) Nonetheless, the Legacy charter will compete directly with PUSD for what are already too few maintenance and operation dollars. As for other for-profit charters, they’ll likely turn to SB 1531 signed into law during this year’s legislative session which, provides $100 million to provide collateral for lower interest rates on charter school project loans. When those charters default, Arizona taxpayers will get the bill. (Don’t even get me started on how the $100 million could have helped our district schools.) In either case, said Tracey Benson, of the Arizona School Boards Association, charter schools added will “build corporate assets – those held by privately operated charter schools – versus community assets – our local district public schools that add value to our cities and neighborhoods.”

I’m not a charter “hater”, I’ve seen some that serve a special niche and provide a valuable alternative. What I do hate is the narrative that charters are superior to district public education, that they ensure disadvantaged students have access to a “high-quality choice”, and that they save the state money…because that narrative is largely false. At the end of the day, over 80 percent of Arizona’s students attend district public schools and that should be our first priority for funding and support.




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Linda Lyon retired as a Colonel (Thomas) from the U.S. Air Force in 2007 at Andrews AFB, Maryland where she served as the Mission Support Group Commander (city manager) for a 20,000 person community with 2,000 people under her command. After retirement from the Air Force, she managed a $28 million logistical service contract at the Department of Energy and served as Deputy Program Manager for the $30 million SBInet contract at L-3 Communications. Since moving to Tucson in 2008, she (and her wife Holly) created and ran four annual Wingspan charity golf tournaments bringing in almost $65,000, and she served as the organization’s Director for 14 months. She also served in key positions for five AZ legislative races. Linda is in her second term as a Governing Board member for the Oracle School District, was named Advocate of the Year for 2013 by the Arizona School Board Association and in 2018, served as the Association's President. She'll be the past president in 2019 and will also be serving as the Federal Legislative Chair for the Arizona PTA.


  1. Charters provide choice to people who want it. Public schools have no right to a kid. Claims of segregation by race and income are the same old story of neighborhood schools in 1 neighborhood being better than another. You are a charter hater, because you refuse to accept Charters as they are today in AZ – you only view a ‘real’ Charter as a niche concept that is not the reality.

    Public schools – even good ones – need the challenge. And the Educrat establishment that thinks its mission is above the will of the parents needs a counterbalance. They won’t take notice, however, because they are convinced they know better. Evidence is found in your definition of a charter — its couldnt possibly be something else.

    My oldest went to an A district school for 5 yrs, and will be attending a charter next year. Can’t wait. Even in the summer school program I saw so many flaws and areas of laxness in the public school were improved upon. The public school had 5 yrs to impress me – yes its good, but it could be a lot better. They did not respond to the demands of the parents who wanted better. Too worried about brining up the bottom to retain the loyalty of the top.

    • Thanks for the read and your comments Jason. I can appreciate your perspective. District schools must educate all that come through their doors and with insufficient resources, sometimes that means compromises must be made.

    • Jason, I hope your child receives the best education possible.

      I also hope that the charter school you’re sending your child too isn’t a for profit charter, taking my tax money by force and sending it to a Wall Street hedge fund in New York City.

      Because that’s corruption, Jason. That’s transfer of wealth from the working people who pay their taxes to the leisure class, who really don’t need the money as much the middle class.

      Non profit charter schools may have their place, but if you do a little research, you’ll see that for profit charter schools are scams, with no oversight of how my tax dollars are spent, and the system is rife with fraud.

      Please don’t steal from me to give so someone in New York can buy a bigger yacht.

      • Excellent comments Tom. Just a little FYI that I am learning more about, evidently non-profit charters can be just as bad as for-profit charters in so far as being all about profit. Need to do more research on this one.

        • No question, there are lots of people who’ve used even non-profit charter schools to get rich, all off the taxpayer dime.

          Linda, when I rule the world, teachers will be paid like doctors and hedge fund parasites will be digging ditches.

          • I am well aware of the situation with Charters. But hard to say our District here isnt full of graft and waste, just taking a different form, refusing to listen to taxpayers and parents in its own way. Our district just proposed a quarter billion dollar massive bond plan, when its been bleeding enrollment year after year. Its not your money Tom – taxpayers contribute the same amount wherever the kid goes to school. There are loopholes with Charters, like letting them keep the buildings, but that doesnt ruin the whole system. I am also well-aware of the challenges districts face and the diverse needs they must address. Frankly I think poorer kids etc should get more resources beyond just Title 1 money because they are the ones who need it most. My middle-class kids, however, should not be forgotten because of pressure to bring up the bottom. And that is exactly what our District has done, and only by having bright flight does District leadership seem to be waking up to the reality that the ‘cream’ they accuse Charters of skimming simply are not satisfied with their offerings.

          • Do what you think is best for you kids, Jason, but please do a simple web search on “charter school scams”. And especially research the one you’re sending your kids to.

            And when I say research, I mean don’t just google the company name, google the CEO, the CFO, and all the directors and teachers. Then google the companies they used to work for.

            Your Tea Party run government is in such a hurry to privatize everything they keep “forgetting” to include oversight, and Wall Street moved in to collect off the taxpayer gravy train, siphoning off hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

            That is my tax money. And since charter’s don’t perform better than public schools, then there’s no excuse for sending my tax money to hedge fund managers in New York City.

            You neglected to mention the criminal defunding of Arizona’s education system when you toss around bond measures, and since the majority of Arizonan’s and Arizona based companies say funding education is their primary concern, when you say the government isn’t listening to the people, you’re right, just in the wrong way.

            I’d rather pay the teacher who lives next door to me 100K a year than send a penny to a parasite who adds nothing to the education equation.

          • You continue to miss the point Tom, behind your anger and 1-dimensional view of what is right and wrong. Charters are doing better for a lot of kids. And as I’ve said in many other contexts, a lot of parents dont care a lick for your complaints – we want results. I dont care if the money goes to a businessperson of an overpaid educrat. The Establishment is not my concern, because for too long it hasnt listened and hasnt been responsive. This is a voter-demanded and necessary correction. You cant stand in the way of people trying to get the most they can out of the available options, and all those in the public school camp are making arguments that simply do not resonate with parents who can find better options.

            You have to win customers. You don’t get to hold them hostage.

          • Ah, “Jason Alexander”, I loved you on Seinfeld, your portrayal of George Costansa was hilarious!

            But you fail here because anyone can google “charter school scams” and get a few million results.

            Since you keep claiming that this is “demanded by the voters” I’m going to call you a Koch brothers/ALEC shill, because everyone in Arizona including businesses say that funding the public schools is priority 1.

            So you’re a liar.

            I understand there are paid shills and actual volunteer shills, FLM knows why. I hope you get a check at the end of the month.

            Shills are a blight on the internet and democracy. Shame on you.

          • You make some good points Jason (especially the last one) and I appreciate you sharing them. I totally understand parents wanting to find the best fit for their child, but when school choice wasn’t an option, those same parents were the very ones who would fight to help make their district schools better. Not it just seems the general attitude (not just about education) is “screw you, I’ve got mine.”

          • Wow Tom, at least I use my name, and dont insult you personally. I have a long history of posting about Scottsdale Unified on Scottsdale-specific forums. And SUSD has a long history of failing state audits and failing its brightest kids. My eldest’s gifted class lost almost half the kids to charters this year, because parents like us are voting with their feet. You are just a little nuts, and once again dont grasp that the parents — the ones voting for bonds and overrides — dont care about your conspiracies or who gets rich. We’ve seen our Superintendent (highest paid in the state) ignore the classroom, lie on state audits, then walk out mid-year to take a VP position with one of the state’s largest school construction companies. We’ve seen the BS in the public school system up close, how one of our Board was almost charged criminally with stealing from our District, and how entrenched interests divert money from the classroom into contractors’ hands to put up empty buildings. Its all there in the state audit records about how bent SUSD has been, how some of our newest shiniest schools are empty. Parents in my neighborhood are blessed to have choices that are providing better education for motivated, bright kids rather than fake-gifted classes. Its really just that simple why we are leaving and taking our state funds with us. The Charters are doing a better job getting the most out of our kids. I saw it in my daughter’s first week of summer school.

            Linda Lyon – I read your site because an excellent student-advocate page often directs people here when you post thought-provoking articles. I don’t necessarily agree with your predisposition to public schools, because I’ve seen it in our district become more of a hindrance than a solution. My wife and I both went to public school, and 5 years ago I felt much like you – but having seen our District not keep up with Charters, our opinions have evolved. However, its very disappointing that you allow anonymous posters to engage in unfounded personal attacks, and simply spew conspiracy. That is not dialog or exchange of ideas. At least on FB people have to own their words.

          • Wow, you call me “angry and 1 dimensional” and you don’t think that’s insulting?

            That method of characterizing the person you’re debating so you may dismiss their views is a tactic used by another “conservative” on this site, you sound very much the same.

            And it’s a common tactic used by shills.

          • Hi Jason. I am sorry for the personal attacks made on you, but I don’t often see the comments before they get published. I am also sorry you’ve had such a bad experience with SUSD but I assure you, not all school districts are the same. Just as you don’t want me to judge all charters the same, I would ask that you not lump all districts into the same bucket. There are pockets of excellence in both charters and districts. I think my two main points with this post are 1) we shouldn’t duplicate efforts (build a 1,200 student charter school within two miles of 10 “A” & “B” schools and 2) let’s please ensure we are comparing apples with apples.

  2. Ms Lyon,

    The problem is that you are using state rankings of A and B as a proxy for academic achievement and excellent schools. Many parents and students realize that their students need to compete on a global basis and that these state rankings are meaningless. It is the curriculum and teachers that count and in many cases PUSD is not delivering a curriculum or quality of teachers that will allow its graduates to compete globally. A and B rankings from the State of AZ do not mean their schools are excellent in the eyes of may parents.

    • Hi Cynthia, thanks for the read and your comments. I totally understand that we should not be determining the quality of our schools by a simple letter grade. But, at least for now, that’s what we have. In that I suspect you are a concerned and involved parent, I encourage you to share your concerns (if you haven’t already) with PUSD administration.

  3. It is evident that charters nationwide left the ether of “choice” a long time ago, and entered the fog of profit opportunity, clothed in “choice” ideology. The vast majority of taxpayers still don’t understand if a charter somehow goes out of business the local real public school district DOES NOT get the property and buildings. The self selected charter board gets the, or least their corporate masters do. Kathy and Linda are correct, non public charters, receiving tax payer money, may be usefully serving a small niche market, but now they are an ideologically based parallel school system with little accountability.

    • Thanks so much for the succinct articulation of reality Frances. You are correct…a big part of the problem is perception doesn’t match reality!

    • Your comment ignores the data Frances. Charter public schools are now growing at 9% in Arizona. Tucson Unified School district is losing over 500 students per year with no end in sight. Less than 30% of TUSD parents grade their child’s education quality an “A”. That means that over 70% of their parents are susceptible to a better offer. There is an entire science called continuous improvement that education culture has been largely but not completely immune to. Districts like the Chandler school district have been growing while Tucson has been shrinking.

      Charters are doing this on $1,700 less per student per year. And a much greater difference than that when compared to TUSD.

      Let’s hit the facts again. When school choice started, juveniles in Arizona were murdering 70 people a year. In the most recent year of FBI stats, juvenile murders were down to 7 despite our juvenile population more than doubling.

      In 2015, our African American 8th graders finished first in the nation in Math, our Hispanics finished 11th and our white students finished 6th. We did fairly well in reading too.

      This despite reducing operational spending by over $400 million per year from 2011 to 2015.

  4. Sad to see the head of “The Hoop” spring up. Stay away from education topics, John, you are part of the problem.

  5. Great post, Linda. I’ll trust your wisdom on education policy over the Thuckmeister’s any day.

  6. “At least they’ll have a choice and a chance” implies that PUSD offers neither.
    On the contrary, PUSD has 25 Career and Tech programs; 12 unique signature programs including Spanish, leadership, STEM and the arts; a non-traditional high school and a “Traditional School” among its 42 campuses to which ALL kids from anywhere are welcome. As for “a chance?” We are so very proud that all these options keep kids inspired and engaged. PUSD boasts a 95% graduation rate, and last year’s seniors earned over $65 million in scholarships.
    For Legacy to try and disrupt what is working so well for so many is a tragedy.
    Kathy Knecht – PUSD Governing Board

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting Kathy! Great to have an expert insider weigh in! As I’m sure you know, this isn’t about offering more “choice”, it is about making a profit. PUSD obviously has the “magic sauce” and Legacy Traditional Schools wants to capitalize on what you and the rest of the team have built! But, you haven’t figured out how to turn a profit with your students so the powers to be are going to make sure someone does in your district!

  7. Peoria is an excellent school district but not even they make it work for 100% of their students. Now those students will have another choice and chance.

    • So, when some of the students migrate to the Legacy charter school, that will leave empty spaces in PUSD classrooms — classrooms in which teachers are doing an EXCELLENT job educating their students (by the state’s own assessments.) How does that EVEN make sense for Arizona taxpayers?

      • The 170,000 charter school students save taxpayers over 290 million dollars per year. The Peoria school district is projected to grow substantially over the next decade. With charter schools, they will not grow as much. They have enormous advantages, both financially and organizationally, over charter schools and if they can keep improving, they will actually be able suck these students back into their school system from charter schools. I actually see this effect in the Chandler Unified school system. As Chandler has improved from 38% excellent rating to 75% excellent rating you can see certain charter school dying on the vine.

        Meanwhile, public schools nationally have dropped from 36% excellent rating to 24%. Wrong direction.

        Competition and great leadership were both necessary for Chandler to get to where it is.

        We will see if Peoria is also the racehorse that responds to the challenge.

  8. do you think they care what you think. if you think they care about what you think. try thinking again.

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