This week I had the opportunity to provide opening remarks for the Alliance for Public Charter School Attorneys spring conference. I also participated on a panel reflecting on our progress over the first 25 years of chartering and imagining our direction and goals over the next 25. We covered a lot of ground!
I always enjoy speaking to a national audience about the reality of Arizona, because it is often different than the national narrative about Arizona. To be sure, we are a state with a profound need for independence, with little regard for rules just for their own sake; and we like freedom to act and a free market setting for business. All of these attributes combined more than two decades ago to create the perfect, fertile ground for a charter school movement.
Arizona was the first in the nation to create a state board for charter schools, and – in a move that few remember or give us credit for – that board still requires three of its appointed members to represent low-income communities. This was originally requested by the Hispanic Community Forum, our allies in creating the charter school bill, who believed that the most urgent need for new and better schools was in low-income communities that might not be "connected" enough to expect a state board for charter schools appointee.
That decision is one I would never change, but I wish I had understood at the time that being a passionate educator is not the same thing as knowing how to run a business. We had many schools fail on the business side even as they offered a better and safe education for children in low-wealth communities. As the charter sector has gotten better at starting and running schools – thanks to supports like the New Schools For Phoenix fellowships – I think that the strong community support in both high and lower wealth neighborhoods has made Arizona about the most politically stable charter movement in the country. We started with everybody in, and it has stayed that way.
Another thing I would not change about Arizona's charter movement is the openness we have to innovation and replication. There is a great deal of Eastern snobbery about what folks call the "Wild West" charter movement in AZ, because we have not constrained the growth of charters arbitrarily with caps or regulations that prevent growth. Most other states have done so. It turns out our "Wild West" approach has brought about a sector of schools that systematically outperforms the larger community of public schools, both on national and state indicators. That’s because we gave them the freedom to do so. And, because we have an authorizing board that has learned how to shut down low quality schools and to only start those whose futures look worthy of children.
I think the best message we sent this week about Arizona is that we trust the choices that parents make to shape a market of schools that will best serve our students. It’s always better to trust markets and parent choices first, then apply regulations to ensure against clearly poor quality or fraud. The key is to not have more confidence in regulations than in what parents are clearly seeking for their students.
Arizona has developed a charter school sector that is now serving more students at a higher level than almost any other state in the country. And that is what trusting impulses of the “Wild West” will get you!