by Matt Beienburg
You know that “Pre-check” shortcut that lets some people breeze through airport security while the rest of us plod 6 inches at a time through the general boarding line? Does it strike you as just a bit unfair that they get to keep their shoes, laptops, and liquids in place, while your 40-minute crawl gets rewarded with a pat-down and an agent rummaging through your bag because of a “hazardous” 4-ounce sunscreen bottle?
Given that, would you vote to close down Pre-check or to try streamlining the process for the rest of us?
That’s pretty much the situation with Arizona’s charter schools, which were established to provide a nimble, streamlined alternative to the bureaucracy that governs district schools. Like travelers in the Pre-check program, charters submit credentials up front (including detailed educational, operational, and financial plans) to the government. Those whose applications are granted then undergo periodic reviews and renewals, just with far fewer burdensome protocols.
But various episodes and media coverage recently have prompted pundits and public figures from around the state to call for passing new regulations around Arizona’s charters to make them subject to the same screening processes as districts.
As Arizona State Senator Kate Brophy McGee has pointed out, “It isn’t right if a charter operator can hand pick a service provider and a district school has to participate in a lengthy procurement process.” Sen. Brophy McGee is right, but perhaps it’s some of those burdensome procurement processes that need re-evaluating. Processes, which despite their requirements, still failed to prevent the CFO of Scottsdale Unified School District from earning herself 11 felony indictments for fraud and conflicts of interest this past year.
Indeed, the solution is not—as a number of bills this session would have tried to do—forcing charter schools to abide by the same prescriptive regulations that govern district procurement policies, for example.
But what about the egregious cases of profiteering among charter owners we’ve heard about?
The idea that people shouldn’t be making large sums from public dollars is the right instinct to have, especially among the fiscally conservative. Cronyism and corporate welfare are both scourges on a free and open economy.
But for anyone who’s not read it, I would point you to an illuminating take on charter pay from Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb, who asks and answers an inflammatory question: “If an Arizona charter school makes big bucks on education, why is that a scandal?”
In short, Robb points out that charter school owners, not taxpayers, are the ones taking financial risks when they invest in building a new charter school (since unlike districts, charters don’t get help from the School Facilities Board and taxpayer-backed bonds). So if we want to keep attracting educational entrepreneurs to invest their time and capital to create successful charter systems, he argues, we probably want to make sure they have an incentive to do so.
Moreover, Robb highlights the fact charter schools provide a public service in the same way that private companies who contract with the government to construct roads and buildings do. As he says, “So long as the contractor does a good job of providing the service for which he is being paid,” we as taxpayers are satisfied. And, as he adds, “I don’t mean to cause a riot, but the companies who provide these [construction] services make a lot a money doing it.”
To be clear, if charter schools were somehow overcharging the state for the services they provide (namely educating our kids), we would be right to rise up. But considering that charter schools receive $951 less per pupil on average than district schools, that’s a tough argument to sell.
Likewise, if the state’s charter sector were failing to provide students a quality education, we’d have grounds to stop contracting with them. But considering that taken together, Arizona’s charters produced higher gains in math and reading for fourth and eighth graders than any other state from 2009 to 2017, they’re clearly a net plus in that regard as well.
Of course, none of this means that there aren’t bad actors in the charter world, any more or less than there are within school districts or elsewhere.
Arizonans are right to expect high-quality, financially responsible administration of our schools, and we should aggressively weed out players who fail to provide this. And that’s exactly why we give the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools the power to shut down poorly performing and financially mismanaged charters.
(Note: This stands in sharp contrast to the extraordinary difficulty of closing similarly failing district schools. And it’s why Stanford researchers found that a poorly performing district school in Arizona is less than half as likely to be shut down as a poorly performing charter school.)
Proposals to augment the Charter Board’s staff so that it can better execute its functions and enforce existing law are perfectly justifiable. But saddling charter schools with a host of new regulations in the name of the public good would be largely misguided.
Likewise, if legislators are truly sincere about looking to promote transparency of government, rather than just scoring points against charter schools, they should take up Representative Eddie Farnsworth on his offer to look for reform “not just for charter school operations, but also for any private sector business contracting with the state. Freeways. Higher education. Healthcare.” As he states, “Let’s have [that discussion], retaining laws and practices where we should and reforming where we must.”
Like airport security, good stewardship of our public schools is an absolute necessity. And yes, it may seem unfair to let charters through the Pre-check line, but when all of TSA’s X-rays and intrusiveness still fail to detect between 80 and 95 percent of potential weapons and explosives, perhaps we should think twice before putting charters through the extra pat-downs.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy for the Goldwater Institute.