Arizona Charter Schools Rank First in the Nation: Report

Arizona is frequently cited as a state whose funding for schools is less than most of the other states, usually tied for last with a handful of other states. But while it recently ranked 47th in total spending and funding in a study shown at, it is ranked number one among the states for academic growth and charter schools.

Matthew Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Educational Opportunity, a researcher with the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and former vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, spoke with the Arizona Sun Times, asking, “If you had to choose between states with the most funding or states with the most academic growth, which one would you choose?”

Ladner added that low-income students score better in Arizona than they do in any other state by large margins.

The Center for Education Reform (CER) issued its state 2022 rankings and scorecard last week, which showed Arizona bumping Florida out of the top spot. The survey ranks states in multiple categories such as growth, independence, teacher freedom, and various types of funding. Arizona’s scores for funding are only average, meaning the schools are doing quite well despite not being the best-funded. Charter schools generally do not receive as much funding as regular public schools.

A significant 28 percent of Arizona’s public schools are charter schools, which are attended by 20 percent of Arizona’s students. Last year, Arizona was number two behind Florida. Both states were the only two in the country to receive A grades both last year and this year. One area in which Arizona noticeably beat out Florida was in freedom to innovate; Arizona ranked seven out of seven whereas Florida scored five. Both states obtained perfect scores for teacher freedom. Iowa scored the lowest in the rankings.

Ladner told the Sun Times that the reason Arizona’s schools do so well is the extensive choice available – not just among charter and private schools but among traditional public schools. For example, in the Scottsdale Unified School District, anyone who lives outside of the district can send their children there, so over one-quarter of the students attending those schools don’t actually live within its boundaries. And over 9,000 students who live within its boundaries attend school somewhere else. Similarly, the majority of K-12 students in the Phoenix area aren’t attending schools within the school districts they live in.

Ladner told the Sun Times about the Stanford Educational Opportunity Project, which analyzed academic progress in schools across the country from 2008 to 2018 and found that Arizona beat out all the other states. Of course, it’s not the same as test scores, which will always be more difficult for Arizona with its large population of low-income and minority students, in part due to illegal immigrants. He said no one knows about the Stanford study since “it doesn’t fit certain narratives.”

He lamented that “the public has been trained to think about school spending rankings.”

In fact, Arizona’s schools actually spend more money now than they did in previous decades.

A big contributing factor to Arizona’s excelling schools was the Great Recession of 2008, which he refers to as a “silver lining.” Due to all the cheap property that became available, lots of new charter schools popped up due to the availability of affordable land. Overall, he’s very thrilled with Arizona’s educational system. “It’s the closest to truly pluralistic with meaningful variety.”

AZBigMedia explained the purpose and usefulness of the rankings: “Since 1996, CER’s National Charter School Law Rankings and Scorecard has been the most reliable national measure for policymakers and education leaders of the extent to which charter school laws do what they were intended to do – foster the creation of diverse, independent public schools that provide a maximum number of families with options.”

Arizona was one of the first states in the country to implement charter schools, starting in 1994. Minnesota was the first, passing a law allowing them in 1991. In the U.S. News & World Report 2022 charter high school rankings, Arizona nabbed seven of the top 10 spots. BASIS Chandler ranked number two in the country, BASIS Oro Valley ranked number four, BASIS Scottsdale ranked number five, BASIS Peoria ranked number six, BASIS Flagstaff ranked number seven, BASIS Tucson ranked number nine, and BASIS Ahwatukee ranked number 10. Ladner pointed out that those schools emphasize math and science.

State Representative Shawnna Bolick (R-Phoenix), who has worked for years as an education advocate, including as a consultant to the Arizona Charter School Association, told the Sun Times, “This is fantastic news for all Arizona families with school-aged kids. Hopefully, the work we have accomplished at the legislature solidifies our national charter law ranking for future decades of children. We are not yet done with this current legislative session, so there might be even more good things during the 2022 session.”

However, she cautioned that the Biden administration is taking steps to undermine charter schools. She sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to stop allowing teachers’ unions to act as a “shadow cabinet.” Bolick cited how the Department of Education “reduce[d] the length of the comment period on the Charter School Programs because of objections from the teachers’ union, whose priority it is to decimate charter schools.”

The number of charter schools continues to increase across the country. Since the early 2000s, the number of charter schools has more than doubled, and the number of enrolled students has more than tripled. The vast majority of students in New Orleans and Detroit public schools attend charter schools.

Arizona has a large number of charter schools relative to its size, 535. Only three states have more: Florida, Texas, and California. A few states have none: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Charter schools, which aren’t religion-based, are funded by taxpayers but are run by private organizations. They do not charge tuition and have fewer regulations than public schools. There are both for-profit and nonprofit types, but only nonprofits can accept donations.

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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at the Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]


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