Charting the Course for Reform

Dr. Matthew Ladner

1/10/2008 10:37:12 AM - Dr. Matthew Ladner

U.S. News and World Report just published its annual ranking of the top 100 public high schools in America. My home state of Arizona punches above its weight. Arizona has less than two percent of the nation’s K-12 students but has three schools on the list: University High School in Tucson, Basis Tucson and Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff. Interestingly, none of these schools are traditional public schools. University High is a magnet school and Basis and Northland both are charter schools.

Public schools embracing parental choice, both charter and district magnet schools, have been setting the pace in Arizona. You can see this for yourself by using the wonderfully simple website.

For a quick ranking, I went to, pushed the “Research and Compare” button and then asked for a list of the public elementary, middle, and high schools within 30 miles of my home zip code (85028). A list of 200 schools appears, and clicking “Academics” and then clicking “Rank by Terra Nova Reading” scores gives a quick top ten academic list.

The top public elementary, middle and high school in Maricopa County are all schools that parents get to choose. Among the top 10 elementary schools, five are either charter or magnet schools. Among middle schools, seven of the top ten are charter schools, and two more of the top 10 are magnet schools. An amazing nine of the top ten public high schools are charter schools. Copper Ridge Math and Science Academy in Scottsdale was the lone non-charter school on the top ten list, and it is a magnet school.

Well, say the skeptics, it is fine that there are some high-flying charter schools. However, it surely must be the case that charter schools would also be overrepresented at the bottom of those lists. Except, as it turns out, they are not. Charter schools constitute 20 percent of the lowest performing schools elementary and middle schools in Arizona and 30 percent of the lowest performing high schools. 

The Arizona School for the Arts (ASA), the top ranked high school by reading scores, demonstrates the exciting capacity of charter schools. Located in downtown Phoenix, ASA teaches 370 students not only a rigorous academic program, but also an impressive array of fine arts, including ballet, band, drama, guitar, piano, and strings. The program covers sixth through twelfth grade, and there are plans to add fifth grade.

Recently, ASA staff performed an analysis of the 200 schools its students formerly attended. Of those, 136 schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. Parents flock to quality: with little more than word of mouth, ASA has approximately two applicants for every available seat.

Here is a little food for thought: with charters and magnets doing so well, what is the point of having school district administrative bureaucracies at all? They’re not helping produce top 100 national or top 10 local schools and they divert quite a bit of funding away from the classroom. Maybe all the talk about consolidating school districts should really be talk about “un-districting” schools completely. The most commonly used word to describe large school districts, after all, is “troubled.”

For dessert, consider the following: the state of Arizona has been either spending or borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build new public schools. Charter schools operate without such facility funding, making use of commercially available space. Given the forecasted multi-year budget crunch facing the state, lawmakers would be wise to forgo building new public schools. Instead, school districts should use their ability to authorize charter schools to deal with overcrowding. We just might get more school options for parents at a lower cost to the taxpayer.