What is an Arizona Charter School?

What is an Arizona Charter School?According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, 597, or nearly one-third of Arizona schools receiving letter grades in 2014, are charter schools. About 187,000 students were educated in Arizona charter schools during the 2013-2014 school year. Eighteen of the top thirty public schools in Arizona are charters and, according to U.S. News in 2013, the #2 public school in the nation and five of the top ten public schools in Arizona are charters. Middle and high income Arizona communities are not the only ones benefitting from the charter movement; Arizona charter schools and charter growth programs are redefining inner-city education, providing excellent school options to Arizona’s historically most underserved students.

On the flip-side, five of the twelve failing schools in Arizona during the 2012-2013 school year were charters; three had their charters revoked by the State Board for Charter Schools and two voluntarily shut their doors.

It is clear that charter schools are a substantial and ever-growing segment of the Arizona education landscape – but what exactly are they? Are they public or private . . . or some hybrid? Are they for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental? Are they accountable to anyone? Here we briefly lay out the legal construct of Arizona charter schools so you can sort through the rhetoric this November and when you look for the best possible school option for your child.

The Basics

Arizona charter schools are, overwhelmingly, nonprofit corporations contracting with the State of Arizona to provide a tuition-free public education to students on behalf of the State. In return for this privilege, the State holds the school accountable with the option to impose sanctions or, if sanctions do not result in increased student achievement, terminate the charter contract. Arizona law does not require charter schools to be nonprofit. They may indeed be for-profit or even held by a private person. For the purposes of this discussion we refer to charter schools as nonprofits because in reality, the vast majority of Arizona charter schools are operated by nonprofit corporations.

Arizona law provides for five different charter school authorizers. In order of most to least common: (1) the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools; (2) school districts; (3) a university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents; (4) the State Board of Education; or (5) a community college district, or group of community college districts, with enrollment of more than fifteen thousand full-time equivalent students. The State Board for Charter Schools authorizes nearly all Arizona charter schools and, so far, the only university in the charter school game is Arizona State University. Interestingly, for the past couple years, more and more districts have started authorizing charter schools (an issue deserving of its own post).

Charter schools are, without argument, public schools. Think of it this way: K-12 education is either “public” or “private”. Private schools may charge tuition, are exempt from No Child Left Behind requirements and other Federal laws including FERPA (so long as they receive no federal funding), are not eligible to receive per-pupil funding, and may establish entrance requirements so long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. On the other hand, public schools are publicly funded, subject to far more accountability (State regulations, NCLB, FERPA, Title I, II, IX . . .), and may not have entrance requirements. Under “public” then, sits district schools and charter schools, both of which are subject to Arizona Open Meeting Law but differ in important ways.


Charter schools are required to admit any child who has submitted a timely application, unless the school is over capacity, does not serve that student’s grade level, or that student has been expelled from another school. With the approval of the State, charter schools set an enrollment cap limiting the number of students the school may enroll based on the size of the school’s class, grade level, and building. Unlike public district schools that must enroll any child living in the district and seeking to enroll, if a charter school’s enrollment cap is reached the charter school may deny admission. Importantly, charter schools must serve students with learning challenges and must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Charter schools are required by law to preference students returning to the charter school and siblings of students already enrolled in the charter school. The charter school has the option of preferring students who have siblings who attend another school in the charter school network or who themselves attended a different school within the network. If the school elects to adopt these optional preferences, they must be made clear in the school’s policy handbook.

A Contract for High Expectations

The premise of the charter school movement is simple – give parents choice when it comes to where they send their children to school and let market forces decide a school’s success (this assumes parents are truly rational actors when they make this choice, but that is a topic for another post). Provide school leaders with the opportunity to tailor their model to the community and our most in-need student populations will receive a better education. Arizona law attempts to do that through a contract establishing certain academic and operational nonnegotiables while allowing schools to innovate around things like school model, human resources, pedagogy, instructional methods, and length and structure of the school day and year. In return for this freedom, the State rightfully places significant accountability requirements on charter schools and the charter school agrees to this increased accountability for increased autonomy relationship when they sign the charter contract. Charters, however, are not easy to get and are getting much harder to keep.

Charter school accountability in Arizona has become far more significant since 1994 when HB 2002, the School Improvement Act, was signed into law. The State Board has rewritten the application for a charter requiring a thorough articulation of the applicant’s education plan, governance structure, business and financial plans, and a demonstration of the learning objectives required by the State. If the application is expanding a charter network, the academic performance of each school in that network is assessed; poor performance by any one is grounds for denial of the expansion. If approved, the applicant must then secure a facility, recruit students, hire staff, and execute on the plan approved by the State. The term of a charter contract in Arizona is fifteen years, but the school must demonstrate satisfactory legal and accounting audits every year and pass a high-stakes Performance Framework evaluation every five years.

So in the end . . .

By both law and design, charter schools are empowered to innovate around specific aspects of the traditional school model and, ideally, provide an education that is more agile, efficient, and effective than what is currently offered. Critics and proponents of charter schools agree this ambitious goal is not being achieved, but proof points are becoming more common. Allowing charter schools to do things a bit differently allows education leaders to adapt traditional models to meet the needs of every student, which in turn drives both academic impact and the quality of service all of our schools deliver to students and parents. When the law allows charter, district, and private schools to challenge each other and then collaborate on impactful outcomes, our kids and Arizona’s economic future win.

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