A Citizen’s Response to the President’s Charter School Education Proclamation: With a Profile of Two “Highly Performing” Charter School Organizations in Arizona
by Amanda U. Potterton - November 01, 2013
This article examines two Arizona-based charter school organizations, well known for their high academic rankings locally and nationally. In response to President Obama's May 5th through May 11th 2013 “National Charter Schools Week” proclamation, and his call for the nation's support of highly performing charter schools, the author analyzes the schools' demographic profiles, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Common Core of Data (CCD), and the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). The author also explores current public discourses surrounding the two charter school organizations. The findings are relevant and timely in light of Obama’s call to extend and replicate successful charter schools throughout the United States, because the results problematize the definition and nuances of charter school “success” by considering the study’s schools in relation to their underrepresentation of disadvantaged students. Based on evidence discovered in the study, the author provides relevant policy questions and suggestions for local, state, and federal education policymakers.
America's success in the 21st century depends on what we do today to reignite the true engine of our economic growth: a thriving middle class. Achieving that vision means making sure our education system provides ladders of opportunity for our sons and daughters. We need to equip all our students with the education and skills that put them on the path to good jobs and a bright future -- no matter where they live or what school they attend. Barack Obama (2013)
President Obama declared May 5th through May 11th 2013 National Charter Schools Week. In his proclamation, he commended the nations charter schools, teachers, and administrators and stated that we should replicate [successful schools] that produce dramatic results (Obama, 2013). Yet some charter schools are not truly serving all students. As a resident of Arizona and an educator, I examined this issue by taking a look at charter schools in Phoenix, Arizona.
Presently, there are over 500 charter schools in Arizona. To begin I zeroed in on two well-known, Arizona-based charter school organizations, known for their high academic rankings locally and nationally. In the 2013 U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools list (2013), two BASIS schools ranked amongst the top high schools (#2 and #5) in the nation. Also, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) ranked high schools by SAT scores (Gonzales, 2013), and Great Hearts Academy charter schools are five of the top 11 ADE ranked schools (Great Hearts Academy, 2013).
I compiled publicly available demographic and statistical information about the highly ranked schools listed above. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2013) provides basic demographic information about schools, and the information provided below is taken from the most recent Common Core of Data public school data, from the 2010-2011 school year. While the methods of the U.S. News and ADE high school rankings systems have been criticized, I focused on the schools they widely and publicly identified as highly performing since these are the schools that presumably should be replicated.
Table 1. Demographics of BASIS and Great Hearts Academy Schools
The basic demographic information shown in Table 1 highlights a critical issue that should be considered alongside enthusiastic calls for the support of charter schools. These top-ranked schools rarely serve all students. When the demographics of these top-ranked schools are compared to demographics of all public school students in the state, it is clear that disadvantaged students are vastly underserved by these schools.
The BASIS schools included in this study did not serve any students who received free lunch, who received reduced lunch, or who were English Language Learners. In comparison, 35% of Arizonas students received free lunch, 10% received reduced fee lunch, and 7.1% were English Language Learners. Few students who had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) attended BASIS schools, as compared to 11.7% of Arizonas total student population. Similarly, the Great Hearts Academy schools provided little to no service to students with special needs and to those who were English Language Learners. Given these statistics, it is possible to hypothesize that, for those students with such requirements, their needs were potentially mild, requiring only minor adjustments from teachers in return for the extra money that had been received for their attendance at the school. Supporting this hypothesis, Garcys (2011) empirical study of Arizonas charter schools service to students with special educational needs concludes that, it would be highly premature to rule out arguments suggesting that charter schools in Arizona restricted the enrollments of more severely disabled students intentionally, or unintentionally (p. 21).
Five English Language Learners attended Great Hearts schools, four of whom attended Teleos Preparatory Academy. With the exception of Teleos Preparatory Academy, which serves a diverse population of students, all of these top-ranked schools served between 53.1% and 85.9% white students, percentages that exceeded the percent of Arizonas white students, which was 42.9%. On the other hand, every school underrepresented the states percentage of American Indian students, Hispanic students and Black students (except for Teleos Preparatory Academy, the majority of whose students were Black/ non-Hispanic). Among all the schools noted above, Teleos serves the most poor and minority students, and state accountability data tells us that student achievement at Teleos is lower than student performance at the other Great Hearts Academy schools (ADE, 2013). Producing high test scores with low income minority children is apparently as hard to do for charter schools as it is for regular public schools.
These data raise questions about whether these schools ought to be praised for their high performance or, rather, be acknowledged as serving populations of students that are widely known to perform well on standardized tests. Policymakers interested in expanding charter schools should also consider the following questions:
1. Can these schools apparent success be attributed to innovative curriculum practices when these schools may simply be serving highly performing students? Would these schools be as successful if they were serving less advantaged students?
2. Should educational management organizations be encouraged to replicate their schools where they are likely to be successful based on what is already known about socioeconomic status, special needs populations, and educational outcomes, or should such organizations be encouraged to open new schools in high need areas?
3. Should federal and state policymakers focus on the educational opportunities available to disadvantaged students rather than praising schools for serving already-advantaged students?
Furthermore, reports about BASIS schools have drawn the attention of community members, who have discovered questionable methods for enrollment procedures, high attrition rates, and methods including counseling out of students who might negatively affect average school performance rankings (Safier, 2013). According to the data I collected above, the highly-ranked BASIS schools appear to serve a privileged demographic, and then, as suggested by Safier, they likely select even further among that privileged group. Visually striking declines in student enrollment at Arizonas BASIS and Great Hearts schools in 2010-2011, as compared to the state of Arizonas student population in 2010-2011, are shown below in graphs made available from the U.S. Department of Education (NCES, 2013).
Figure 1. BASIS Scottsdale
Figure 2. BASIS Tucson
Figure 3. GHA Chandler
Figure 4. GHA Glendale
Figure 5. GHA Mesa
Figure 6. GHA Scottsdal
Figure 7. GHA Veritas
Figure 8. GHA Anthem
Notes. Through 9th grade only
Figure 9. GHA Teleos
Figure 10. The state of Arizona
Notes. Through 8th grade only
Researchers have previously discussed declining enrollment numbers in the years nearing graduation at BASIS schools (see, for example, Casanova, 2012). BASIS school representatives responded in defense (BASIS_Communications, 2012) by challenging interpretations of the low numbers shown in the data, albeit without adequately addressing Casanovas main concern about enrollment drop across grades. Casanovas analysis highlights very low numbers of enrolled students in the upper grades. Extending from her critique, the graphs displayed above raise a question of basic comparability: is it even fair to include these schools in a comparison with Arizonas public schools, since they do not come close to matching Arizonas student enrollment trends? Kevin Welner (2013) describes the various ways that many charter schools systematically engage in student enrollment practices that give them a competitive advantage over other schools, and these practices obviously widen gaps between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers.
Ann Ryman (2012) recently uncovered business practices within BASIS and Great Hearts Academy schools that reveal potential conflicts of interest between board members and owners. These charter school organizations make large profits at the expense of the government and community members, through fees, book purchases, and building contracts. Other investigators have highlighted questionable practices that provide considerable access to policy makers who influence Arizonas lawmakers; as one example, Mercedes Schneider (2013) outlined the following map of Great Hearts connections:
- Clint Bolick, member of the Great Hearts board of directors, also serves as the litigation director for the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based, conservative public policy advocacy and research organization (Schneider, 2013).
- Goldwater Institute members also sit on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task forces, including its Education Task Force. The ALEC task forces have a mission to advance free-market enterprises (ALEC, 2013).
- It is significant that ALEC has a mission to advance free-market enterprises, and that ALEC, in [constructing] and [advancing] model legislation also acts to financially benefit its members, which includes Goldwater and Great Hearts members (Schneider, 2013).
Such access between executives of charter school management organizations and policy leaders who influence lawmakers further complicates the problems of educational inequality. Such influence provides charter schools with unfair competitive advantages. Children and taxpayers are the losers when public education dollars are at stake.
The Presidents call to Americans to support our schools, and his hopes to replicate highly performing charter systems, should be viewed more skeptically in light of the alarming demographic statistics and the powerful political clout of these top-ranked schools. Like other researchers and educators who once believed in the possibility of innovative charter schools that would help improve the schools of this nation (Baker, 2013; Ravitch, 2013), I am very worried by the facts.
In conclusion, the Presidents proclamation calling for support of the nations charter schools should have also included a call for them to serve all the students of the United States, not just those that can produce the highest achievement test scores for the lowest cost. The analysis of Arizonas highly performing charter schools provided in this study highlights suggested trends of market-oriented charter schools tendency (Lacireno-Paquet, Holyoke, Moser, & Henig, 2002) to underrepresent students with special educational needs and students who are English Language Learners. The schools in this study also underrepresent minority students in comparison to Arizonas student population. Nationally, while charter schools grow in lower-income communities and communities of color (Henig, 2013), a skimming process (West, Ingram, & Hind, 2006) is also observed, whereupon children from more advantaged families within these communities attend the schools. Therefore, we need more presidential proclamations that address the needs of our disadvantaged students, and fewer that support those who would make profits in education by serving the students easiest to teach.
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