By Emily Gersema - The Arizona Republic
Arizona has been awarded a $54 million federal grant to expand top-performing charter schools and foster new ones across the state.
The state aims to open as many as 92 new campuses, particularly junior highs and high schools offering advanced academic programs, and others that boost academic achievement among minority children and those from low-income families.
State officials said the five-year grant is the first of its kind for Arizona. Traditionally, charters in the state win individual grants by applying directly to the U.S. Department of Education. On this occasion, the federal government invited state education agencies to apply and use the grants to increase the number of charter schools in the country.
The Obama administration, as part of a strategy to promote school reform, has promised to double funding for new charter schools with high academic standards, which many believe are key to improving the nation's K-12 system through competition with traditional public schools.
Supporters of charter schools, which are run by private companies or individuals but receive public funding, applauded the new grants.
"All of us insist on quality education, and this allows us to further that mission," said Eileen Sigmund, chief executive officer of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, a non-profit organization that includes 477 charters in the state.
The state will release the grant money in batches, with $14 million due in the first two years. A school can qualify for up to $690,000 over three years to help pay for new campuses and staff.
Potential applicants have been calling the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona State Board for Charter Schools since the grant was announced last week to see whether they qualify for a share. Karen Butterfield, an associate superintendent for the state Department of Education, said her office and the Board for Charter Schools have agreed on some basic outlines and will formalize their criteria in the next few weeks. They will begin accepting applications Dec. 1.
Existing charters with a proven record of rigorous academic programs and high-performing students will be allowed to apply for funds to open new satellites, she said.
Butterfield said preference will be given to those with some sort of program with rigorous goals and curriculum, such as international baccalaureates or advanced-placement programs, college-level courses and curricula developed by the College Board, a New York-based non-profit.
The department and the charter board also prefer to back charter schools "serving a high population of at-risk students," such as minorities and those from low-income families.
Butterfield said officials will favor applications for new high schools or junior highs, plus applications from charters opening this school year or next.
Those charters would have applied for a grant anyway had they known one would be available, she said.
Arizona was among five states awarded federal grants. Others were Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Supporters hope Arizona's charter schools can use the money to become models for the rest of the nation.
"The purpose of this is to move forward high-quality charter schools, so whoever applies -a district or a charter - it is to serve our students and make sure they get a good education," said Sigmund, of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
There is no national standard for a "high quality" charter school, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants one because recent studies have raised concerns that dozens of charter schools fall short of academic standards and are financially troubled.
This summer, a Stanford University study estimated students in 37 percent of the nation's charter schools have performed worse on state standardized tests than their peers in typical public-school districts.
A separate study this year by the Center for Education Reform found two-thirds of the 657 troubled charters that closed since the early 1990s collapsed because of financial mismanagement, such as poor budgeting and, in some cases, theft or fraud.
Ken Surratt, assistant director at Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said researchers, industry representatives and investors met repeatedly over three years and jointly released two papers outlining quality standards.
Some standards include setting up a governing board for each school system to oversee operations and ensure the charters live up to their service commitment and to track student data to improve programs to boost academic success.
"We're trying to make them better managers," Surratt said.
When Arizona officials are asked to define high-quality schools, they often cite BASIS, a fifth- to 12th-grade charter with campuses in Scottsdale and Tucson. National publications have counted BASIS among the best schools in the country.
Michael Block, chief executive of BASIS, said the charter-school group monitors student results on advanced-placement exams and their college readiness.
Block acknowledged the BASIS schools' performance depends on the quality of their teachers. He said the teachers are offered many incentives to keep abreast of the best teaching methods and classroom tools.
"We offer them some in-house training and send them to external trainings," he said. "And we try to pay pretty well."
Block will apply for a share of the grant to open a new school in Oro Valley near Tucson, home to many families that work for technology companies and hospitals in the area.
Republic reporter Pat Kossan contributed to this article.