One couple made more than $337,000 last year to operate their charter schools, even though the schools don't rank among top academic performers.
Instructors at another charter school failed to keep students in class long enough and couldn't prove they'd met graduation requirements or that the staff was qualified to teach.
A student at a third charter school received a diploma two weeks after enrolling, even though she'd have had a year and a half to go in a traditional high school. She asked that it be rescinded.
Charter schools exploded onto the scene 15 years ago, when Arizona launched an experiment to fund innovative ventures that would compete with traditional public schools. The 500 schools now make up one-fourth of the state's public schools, and the federal government is granting $53 million to open as many as 100 more in the state.
But an Arizona Daily Star investigation has found that state regulators rarely visit charter schools, that sporadic oversight sometimes allows academic and financial issues to continue for years, and that information about charter schools is difficult for parents to come by.
Among the Star's findings:
• Students in charter schools score slightly higher than traditional public school counterparts overall in the AIMS test in lower grades. But there is a 30 percentage point gap in how many of their students pass the high school AIMS test compared with district schools.
• While it's clear that some charter schools do excellent work, problems at others can persist for years. The state has revoked charter licenses only 14 times — and poor academic performance was specifically identified in only one case.
• The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools has only seven staff positions — and only five are filled — to oversee 502 charter schools. Regulators visit a school once in each of its first two years and may never go back.
• Information about how schools spend public dollars and about complaints and other problems is difficult to obtain. Instead of going to your local school district office, you must drive to Phoenix to look at records. In Arizona, you can go online to check whether gas stations pass inspection, but not charter schools.
• Some administrators make salaries that don't seem on par with academic performance, and some have salaries that rival superintendents of much-larger districts. Taxpayers are in the dark about how much some operators make because budget information submitted to the state Education Department is sparse. And 12 percent of the schools are for-profit ventures that don't file federal forms required of nonprofits that would provide more details on their operations.
• The charter board isn't required to weigh in on complaints to determine their validity in the same way that, say, the boards that oversee doctors or lawyers are. The board does investigate if it gets a complaint that a school is charging tuition, for example, or if the school is endangering the health and safety of students. But, generally, complaints and the school's response just get put in the file for public review.
"It seems that when charter schools were authorized in the '90s, the Legislature thought it was doing a favor to have a hands-off, let-the-free-market-reign, Wild-West approach to charter schools," Tucson lawmaker Nancy Young Wright said. "But when you're talking about kids, that's problematic."
Some problems long-lived
Problems have persisted for years at some schools, including two sister charter schools — César Chávez Middle School and Aztlan Academy, which operate out of modular trailers on West Silverlake Road and which enroll predominantly poor and minority students who have failed in the regular system.
The schools landed on regulators' radar in 2004 after missing yearly audit deadlines and failing to give the high-stakes AIMS test. In 2005, investigators could find no evidence that the curriculum aligned with state academic standards.
At the time, Sister Judy Bisignano, a Catholic nun who oversees the schools, said they were being targeted because "it's creative and to the left."
The state labeled César Chávez as underperforming in 2006 and 2007, although both schools have met "performing" standards for the past two years.
In 2008, school operators couldn't provide state workers with required lesson plans. That year, the charter filed for bankruptcy protection. Its 2008 audit indicated it owed the state retirement system nearly $150,000 in payroll taxes.
Given that history, state workers conducted an on-site visit earlier this year to mark the school's 10-year review.
They found no evidence that afternoon "project-based" classes at the schools aligned with state standards, and no documentation showing the work students completed satisfied grade-level and graduation-credit requirements.
The school didn't offer required high school science classes, and chemistry lesson plans didn't hit about half of state performance objectives generally for that course.
For some teachers the school reported as "highly qualified," as required under No Child Left Behind, regulators could find no proof of their status.
With a change in school bell schedules, seventh- and eighth-graders were short 242 of the 1,068 minimum hours students must be in school under state law. Even after character-building programs were added, the students were still shy 151 hours.
Regulators also had questions about attendance. The school was reporting to the state an enrollment of 184 students, but staffers could only count 110 — which could have resulted in roughly $6,600 per student that the school didn't deserve. They also noted other inconsistencies. The school, for example, reported zero absences to the state Education Department for the whole year through May.
The charter board voted in July to withhold 10 percent of the school's $94,700 monthly funding as a penalty and ordered a corrective action plan.
The board also issued a notice of intent to revoke its charter, which isn't a quick process. After a December hearing before an administrative law judge, the board will consider the judge's findings and decide whether to go forward with the revocation. There is an appeal process, so the school could remain open through the school year.
Bisignano did not return repeated calls for comment. She told the charter board, however, that her school changes the lives of its students, who would otherwise likely drop out of school.
Financial supervision erratic
Financial oversight of charter schools can be spotty, even though they are required to submit yearly audits. It sometimes can be three years before the board withholds funding due to repeat audit violations. However, the board doesn't track the overall number of enforcement actions, so there's no way to tell how often that happens.
Lisa Graham Keegan, who was an architect of Arizona's charter school law as chairwoman of the House Education Committee and who later ushered in its implementation as the state schools chief, said she's pleased that Arizona parents can exercise choice. She contends charters provide a greater ability to cull subpar schools.
"They come in with a contract saying what they're going to do, and we can shut them down if they don't. District schools don't have that same standard."
But even a strong advocate like Keegan said oversight needs to be stronger, suggesting the charter school office should have at least 30 staffers.
"We thought we could do more than we can with strictly parental choice," she acknowledged. "You have to have choice first, but you can't have it in the absence of good information about the quality of the school. Choice only matters if it's informed choice."
Paul Eckerstrom, who looked into charter school concerns as a prosecutor with the state Attorney General's Office, said charters often put friends and relatives on their boards, and sometimes give them lucrative contracts. He recalled one Sierra Vista case in which a charter owner gave a technology contract to her husband, who bought computers retail and sold them to the school at a mark-up.
At La Paloma Academy, the school's board — on which school owner Raena Janes sits — approved salaries of $171,000 for Janes and $166,000 for her husband, Craig, in 2007. Their two schools have 1,200 students; by comparison, the superintendent of Sunnyside Unified school District, with 18,000 students, earns $150,000.
"As somebody who looked at these cases, I can tell you it's hard to see where the money is going," Eckerstrom said.
Academic concerns persist, too. At Desert Rose Academy, a parent complained in 2008 that her daughter had received a diploma in only two weeks — after doing two packets with six-page worksheets. The school maintained the student had taken extra work home and worked at a fast pace.
Some charter schools excel
Charter advocates point to standouts like BASIS Tucson, Hermosa Montessori School and Sonoran Science Academy as examples of how the system is fueling needed change. Those schools all have crafted specialized niches and are thriving academically, earning the state's highest performance ranking.
Shortcomings in the system — fewer extracurricular opportunities, for example — are being addressed. In Tucson, 20 charter high schools have banded together to form an athletic league, since many charters don't have the enrollment or the money to support their own teams.
And surveys show parents are happy with their schools. A 2007 survey by Arizona State University researchers for the charter schools board showed more than 90 percent of some 6,000 parents interviewed felt their child had improved academically, and only 6 percent rated their school a "C" or lower. A majority chose their school for small class sizes, with 40 percent mentioning specialized curriculum.
Arthur Desi Gross, a 46-year-old computer technician, can't say enough about how charters helped his now-18-year-old daughter. In 2001, he left Tucson Unified School District, worried about stories his daughter was bringing home from elementary school.
"Kids talked about drugs, alcoholism — things that my family is not used to," he said, adding he felt the school had too many students and "felt impersonal."
He found the discipline, small class size and personal attention he was seeking at the Griffin Foundation's Children Reaching for the Sky.
He put his daughter in TUSD's Catalina High Magnet School as a freshman but was again dismayed when she started ditching and blowing off homework.
He found Sonoran Science Academy, even though it meant a 36-mile round-trip drive every weekday for three years.
"It was a chore and gasoline was expensive and we had little money, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do it again. They put her on the right track."
His daughter plans to enroll in the nursing program at Pima Community College. "She's just a real success story," he said.
Charter growth unabated
Those kinds of experiences help fuel the system's growth.
Forty new charter schools submitted applications for approval this year. And the Obama administration has talked up charters as a linchpin — along with performance pay for teachers — of turning around America's education system. States that hamper their growth are finding themselves penalized in the race for federal funds.
Arizona charter school advocates say they're beginning to police themselves and demand more from lagging peers.
To help boost oversight, the Arizona Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, is sharing with the state a new data-driven model intended to provide a sophisticated analysis on how well charter schools are performing.
Association spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the public is demanding a responsible education system.
"The state has limited resources, and we recognize that," she said. "If there isn't the staff to do the research that needs to be done, it's nobody's fault, but that's why we're giving them more information and arming them with more data. If a school isn't improving, then those students deserve something better."
The organization is assisting schools as well. Its staff has visited 80 schools across the state since the beginning of the year to pinpoint academic weaknesses and shore up strengths.
DeAnna Rowe, the director of the charter school board office, said her office is relying on outside assistance to compensate for the small staff. The business and charter communities help review the business plans of startup charters. The state Department of Education helps with areas such as special education and federal funding requirements.
By the first of the year, Rowe hopes to roll out an online search mechanism that will help the public make sense of the confusing maze of options by letting users sort by a school's special characteristics — such as those with a performing arts bent for fifth-graders. The system should also provide access to annual audits and other school compliance issues, including complaints.
How is the money used?
Some experts say those efforts are sorely needed.
David Berliner, a professor in the School of Education at Arizona State University, said he philosophically likes charters. "If teachers or principals think they can do a better job than regular public schools, let's let them go to it and give us a new model," he said.
"But the problem is, these charters were supposed to drive innovation in an old bureaucracy and instead, literally, they look just like any other school out there," he said.
Some Chicago charter teachers have even launched a union.
Beyond the question of effectiveness, he said the vastness of the decentralized system walls off important information.
"In the regular public schools we have weak, but at least functioning, school boards."
When he tried to get information on a large chain operating charters, he said, it was difficult to see the files — and those he saw were incomplete and told very little about the operations.
"I've been appalled, as a citizen, that so much of our tax money is being spent and nobody is watching it."
By the numbers
number of charter schools in arizona (26 percent)
number of district schools in arizona (74 percent)
Average maintenance and operation funding per charter student in 2009
Average maintenance and operation funding per district student in 2009
Average charter school funding in 2007-08 including federal, local dollars
Average district school funding in 2007-08 including federal, local dollars
Source: Arizona Department of Education and Arizona Charter School Board