During the 1990's, when Republicans ruled the roost here in Arizona and pretty much had free reign to do as they pleased, the legislature (backed by then governor Fife Symington, a conservative whose sun was then high in the sky and whose indictment, conviction on fraud charges and later Presidential pardon by Bill Clinton were still in the future) led the nation in the creation of 'charter schools,' publically funded schools that could be set up by persons and organizations who had no ties to the traditional public school system. Supporters of public schools correctly predicted that teacher salaries in Arizona, already low, would drop to the bottom of the country as money was sucked out of public school systems and given to what amounted to private schools funded by the taxpayers.
One of the biggest mistakes the legislature made was to reduce 'paperwork, red tape and bureaucratic regulations' on the charter schools, which supporters claimed would help them to innovate and opponents (who were outgunned) claimed would give them an unfair advantage over public schools. Several well publicized embarrassments later proponents of charter schools were red in the face and had to admit that the lax state oversight and trimming of regulations was a mistake. Some of these embarrassments included the charter school set up by a plumber who pretty much taught no reading or math, just plumbing, the charter schools set up by people who pretty much let school age kids run wild all day and picked up their state check for serving as a baby sitting service, and the charter school where two girls were molested by a registered sex offender who would never have passed the background check public schools were required to give, but managed to waltz right into the charter school since the background check was one of the 'unnecessary' regulations that the legislature 'took off the backs' of charter schools.
So, a few years ago when President Bush signed the NCLB act that mandated the use of standardized tests as a part of the school curriculum, Arizona developed a statewide test, the AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards), which students would be required to pass before earning a High School diploma (they have at least two more chances to take it if they don't pass the first time). At first charter school backers wanted to exempt charter schools from the test. However, with stories like those listed above in the paper, the attitude had shifted towards holding charters to the same standards (and with the same requirements) as public schools. So, charter schools were required to give the same test as the public schools.
So how did they fare? Well, according to today's Arizona Republic charter school students pass at a rate that is only a little worse than those enrolled in public schools on their AIMS scores when the test is given in the lower grades, but by the sophomore year of high school (10th grade) they are below, in fact way below the scores for public schools. In fact, quoting from the linked article,
Test results released this week by the state showed that just 36 percent of charter-school sophomores passed math on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, compared with 73 percent at traditional schools. About half of the charter-school sophomores passed reading and writing vs. 77 percent at district schools.
This replicates results from previous years in which high school students from charter schools performed way below those in public schools (although in those years all pass rates were lower; Republican schools chief Tom Horne responded to criticism this year by making the test easier for everyone).
Defenders of charter schools claim that the results are unfair because some charter schools cater to students who are academically challenged and have not done well in school in the past. Other defenders point to the high marks achieved by some charter schools who cater to high performers aiming for elite colleges.
Both of these claims are true, but both attempt to explain away a cataclysmic failure by focusing on a few specific schools. There are certainly individual charter schools which cater to both of these categories of students (and there are plenty of students in both of these categories in public schools as well) but there is NO evidence that statewide charter schools serve a particularly different population than public schools statewide (except perhaps more children from Republican families since they are the ones who are so hot to trot on the school choice/private school issues, and certainly some have put their money (well, actually my money) where their mouth is). Further, even if there were some difference in terms of demographics, the difference in success rates on the test is so hugely different from public schools that the only conclusion one can reach is that the great experiment in charter schools is a failure. One theory I have (with no more than a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence, to be sure) is that well meaning parents and others who start charter schools may have the academic background themselves to teach at least the English and math portions of an elementary school curriculum but once the level of studies reaches high school level and includes courses like composition and trigonometry, they frankly lack the skills to understand these topics and therefore to teach them.
Further, conservatives pushing ideas like vouchers and expansion of charters (talk about p**sing into the wind) would have you believe that public schools are a failure. They are not. They never cite declining SAT scores anymore, for good reason. Even adjusting for changes in the scoring implemented a few years ago, the scores have been rising, and were even during the later years of the Clinton administration In my own small rural town, our high school (which last year was among the top five in the state on AIMS) had a 93 percent pass rate among tenth graders on this year's math test and scored very well on the other portions of the test. My eldest daughter just graduated and her class size was 34, one of the largest they have had in awhile. In spite of the low teacher salaries, the teachers in our school district, and according to these results, many, many others in the state, are doing an extraordinary job. And much better than their counterparts at charter schools.