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Arizona's Big Stakes In Charter Schools

State is a laboratory for new school genre - and its effects on public education.

The Center of Excellence Charter High School has no lunchroom, gymnasium, or library. For reports, students use a bookmobile that parks blocks away. For the occasional art class, they walk to a nearby elementary school.

It's a long list of "have nots," but what the school here does have is one teacher for every 15 students. In small rooms that are carpeted and quiet, teachers coach tiny clusters of students in just four subjects: English, math, social studies, and science.

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"We don't offer electives and [other] activities," says Principal Gloria Junkersfeld. "We do offer an ... environment that makes it impossible to escape learning."

This school - and 783 other charter schools across the US - are front and center in America's long debate on education reform. Now, four years after charter schools were invented as a palatable alternative to vouchers, they offer a mixed track record - and some early lessons on how public schools are reacting to the experimental upstarts in their midst.

Here in Arizona, where nearly one-third of all charter schools are concentrated, supporters say the Center of Excellence school and others like it have turned around the lives of students who failed in conventional public schools.

But partly because of highly publicized failures elsewhere, the 240 charter schools in the state are under fresh scrutiny by reformers, legislators, and media both within and without Arizona.

Because of the large number of Arizona charter schools, the state's experience "provides an opportunity to see not just whether [charter schools] are successful, but how their [growth in popularity] might affect the overall education equation," says Ted Kolderie, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn.

So far, assessments are being made in the same contentious climate that marked the birth of charter schools in 1994. In the propaganda battles that have ensued, supporters claim charter schools offer parents a way to circumvent the pitfalls of conventional public education - by cutting bureaucracy, restoring local control, and empowering teachers. Detractors cite an equally long list of problems: lack of accountability, questionable standards, elitism, and even segregationism.

But the No. 1 question, say observers on both sides, is whether the charter-school option has helped to break the near-monopoly of conventional public schools, forcing them to reform in order to attract or keep students.

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Catalyst for reform

The answer seems to be, they have.

"The free-market incentive for public schools to improve their offerings or lose their students is already working," says Jeff Flake of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative economic think tank that promotes limited government.

The Phoenix school district lost 90 students over two years instead of gaining 6,000 that demographers had expected, he notes, attributing the decline to the new presence of charter schools. "Larger schools in the public system have entered the competition for schoolchildren by overhauling programs [and] facilities," says Mr. Flake.

A charter school's popularity is one measure of accountability - that parents will remove their children if they are not satisfied with results, he says. Moreover, standardized national tests such as the Stanford Nine have also borne out the success of charter schools.

Others say there is no way to accurately measure the short-term academic achievements of charter-school students until both schools and students are much older. By then, they fear, irreparable damage may already have occurred.

"The thread that runs through the charter school movement ... is anchored in one premise - to divert public funds and tax money to privately defined and parochial purposes," says Jack Peterson of the Arizona School Boards Association. "[Charter schools] have triggered a reincarnation of the segregation issue that will create a class stratification and in the long term destroy public education as we know it."

Creating a poor stepchild?

Dr. Peterson and other detractors worry that parents will use state allotments (about $4,200 to $4,500 per child) to patronize the charter school of their choice, leaving a vastly weakened - and inherently unequal - public system to poorer citizens. The drive to appeal to monied families will result in exclusion of students with physical, behavioral, or academic problems, they say.

Peterson also cites examples of charter schools that have been closed for questionable fiscal dealings and teaching tactics - evidence that he says shows charter schools do not get the same formal scrutiny that public schools do, even though they get public money.

One high-profile example is the closing of a school called Citizen 2000, just a year after its charter was approved in August 1995. The state charter board found that school officials had exaggerated enrollment and received $250,000 more in funding than they were due.

But proponents say abuses have been few, perhaps 5 percent of Arizona's chartered schools. To assuage other fears, they cite Goldwater Institute findings that 35 percent of Arizona's charter schools serve at-risk students, underprivileged students, and nonwhite students with special needs.

If there is one conclusion that all sides seem most willing to concede, it is that the smaller size of most charter schools holds great promise.

"I was doing every kind of drug, gang-banging, and skipping class whenever I could," says Josh Powers, who was kicked out of Camelback High School in Phoenix last year for chalking up 83 absences. Now a top student at Center of Excellence, Josh says small classes and close interaction with teachers have helped him focus on educational and emotional issues. "I was drifting in classes of 35 to 38," he says.

Health teacher Dennis Meador taught in the Phoenix system for 29 years before switching to Center for Excellence. He says teaching 35 to 38 students per class takes its toll on both teacher and student. "Charter schools are a step in the direction of reform if they do nothing but show that our public education factories are too large," he says. "I don't know if charter schools have all the answers, but they are filling a niche in providing alternatives."

Whatever the fits and starts of Arizona's charter schools, national observers say such schools are on the rise and here to stay. A joint study by the Hudson Institute and the Educational Excellence Network concluded that despite problems, "charter schools may be the most vibrant force in American education today."

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