The number of students enrolled in charter schools has increased in Arizona, with many school districts feeling the impact as they lose more students to charters.
Fourteen percent of state students attend charter schools this school year — or 144,802 students, according to new estimates form the Arizona Charter Schools Association. That’s up about 10,000 students from last year, when 12 percent of state students attended charters, according to the association.
A quarter of all public schools in the state are charters.
Nationwide, 4.2 percent of all students attended charter schools in 2011-12, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Arizona is among the nation’s leaders for charter-school enrollment, the report said.
Charters are public schools that are independently operated. Arizona has had charter schools for 17 years.
For the 2011-12 school year, Arizona had 16 school districts with at least 10 percent of the overall student population enrolled in charter schools, tied with California for the most, according to Wednesday’s report. The previous year, five state districts hit that threshold.
The two with the highest percentages for 2011-12 were the Roosevelt School District, with 25 percent of the students in its boundaries attending charter schools, and Phoenix Union High School District, 22 percent.
That report also found big growth in charter-school enrollment in some Valley areas, including Phoenix Union, which saw 33 percent more students in charters in 2011-12 over the previous year, and Gilbert Public Schools, where the increase was 30 percent.
Craig Pletenik, spokesman for Phoenix Union, said the increase has not left its schools empty — enrollment the past two years has been the highest in 32 years.
“We’ve been co-existing with charter schools for a number of years now,” he said.
Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said the number of charter schools is increasing mainly due to the replication of successful charters.
Starting a charter from scratch is rigorous, she said, with only nine new charters approved last January out of 44 applicants.
Another reason is that Arizona has one statewide authorizer, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. Most states permit individual school districts to approve charters, which can politicize the process, Sigmund said.
Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, pointed out many states have a cap on the number of charter schools, something Arizona doesn’t have.
The Deer Valley Unified School District is in the midst of intense, data-driven initiative to lure back students who have left for charters and keep families in the district.
“We have been addressing this for the last three years,” said Heidi Vega, public-relations manager for Deer Valley, which has 13percent of the students in its boundaries attending charter schools.
“This year, we’re pulling data on charters schools, such as growth scores, and comparing them with ours, and going on their sites and cold-calling them to find out their niche,” she said.
The district also will hold focus groups for parents of preschoolers as well as families who left the district for charter schools and then returned.
“We want to know: ‘What are your expectations?’ We don’t want to assume anymore,” she said.
Pletenik said the Phoenix Union district markets heavily to eighth-graders and points out the programs that small charter high schools might not have, including sports, junior ROTC, and the Grand Canyon and International Baccalaureate diploma programs.
Sigmund said she would like more charters to partner with districts.
“Is it competition? Of course. But my whole focus is student achievement and high quality no matter where it is,” she said.
One of the biggest obstacles to charter growth is facilities, Sigmund said. The cost to borrow money to buy a building is higher for charter schools than for districts because there is a higher risk.
“There are vacant district buildings, and I’ve gone to many a governing-board meeting and asked to lease them,” she said. “Governing boards are not there yet in Arizona.”
Pam Kirby is a member of the Scottsdale Unified School District governing board and has three children, one each in a district school, a charter and a private school. She chose the charter school because it offers a specialized arts program.
“I think parents see it that they are looking for a school that meets the needs of their child and family, and not every school does that,” she said
As a parent, Kirby doesn’t see it as a competition. As a board member, she does.
“But it doesn’t have to have a negative connotation,” she said. “It’s raising the bar.”