Students play soccer after school on the basketball court during an open house at BASIS Tucson North charter school, 5740 E. River Road.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star 2016

When the new AzMERIT scores were released last week, Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, couldn’t help but brag.

Her organization fired off a press release noting that charter-school students scored better than the state average in “virtually every grade level and subject area for the third straight year.”

She noted that of the 100 top Local Education Authorities — meaning school districts or groups of charter schools operated by the same entity — 97 of the top performers in the English Language Arts portion of the test are charters, as are 93 of the top performers in math.

Sigmund, in an interview, ascribed charters schools’ successes to the “special sauce” charter teachers bring to the classroom.

But district-school advocates say comparing charter LEAs to public-school districts is like comparing apples to lemons, and although there are many exceptional charter schools, there are also many at the low end of the spectrum.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said the biggest myth about charter schools is that there is a “special sauce.”

“Anybody who is in a classroom knows charter schools aren’t doing anything different,” Thomas said. “Their teachers aren’t teaching in an amazingly different style — they’re not engaging students any differently than district schools. You just have a different caliber of student going to some charters.”

Scores for Pima County schools in Fiscal Year 2017.



Scores by county in Fiscal Year 2017.

In fact, charter schools make up an oversized portion of the bottom rung on the testing scale as well.

Of the 100 LEAs that scored worst on the AzMERIT test in math and English, 69 and 68 are charter entities, respectively.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo, who started his career in charter schools, said he wasn’t surprised that charters made up a large chunk of both the top and bottom performers. What would have surprised him is if charters accounted for a large chunk of the middle-of-the-road scores.

That’s because charters tend to target two types of students, he said. Some charters engage in “creaming” — or taking the cream of the crop from traditional public schools. Others focus on serving students who didn’t succeed at a traditional district school.

Sigmund noted that while charter-school students are a self-selected group that naturally gravitates toward the various types of charter schools, charters cannot “cream” by requiring that students have high test scores or grades to enter.

“The law requires our charter schools in Arizona to accept all those who come to their schoolhouse doors. … It is the same requirements for district and charter public schools for admittance,” she said.

Still, Trujillo said comparing a district like TUSD, which has nearly 90 schools, to a charter school LEA, often with just one school, doesn’t make any sense.

“You could compare individual schools. That would be more appropriate to me,” he said.

Charter schools account for 39 percent of Pima County schools with publicly released AzMERIT test scores.

Of the 50 schools in Pima County that performed best on AzMERIT, charters account for 24 percent in the math category, and 30 percent of the top performers in English language arts.

But of the 50 lowest performing schools in Pima County, charters account for nearly half in both subject areas.

Sigmund noted that many of those lowest-performing schools, both on the district and charter side, are alternative schools that are specifically set up to serve students who otherwise probably wouldn’t graduate high school.

She said roughly 70 percent of alternative schools are charters and were set up by leaders in the community who saw a need for schools that serve students who would otherwise have dropped out of traditional district schools.

Looking at the lowest 25 performing schools in Pima County, she noted that 15 are alternative district or charter schools, while five are traditional district schools, and five are traditional charters.

The difference between those five charters and five public schools is that if the charters don’t improve, they’ll likely be closed, Sigmund said. That’s because unlike district schools, charters have an “accountability hammer” hanging over them in the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools, which is charged with shutting down failing charters.

And while school district governing boards often close or consolidate schools when student enrollment drops, Sigmund said that in her long career in education, she’s never seen a single district school shut down for having poor academic performance.

Trujillo said that despite the large number of charter schools occupying the bottom end of the AzMERIT spectrum, there’s no avoiding the fact that overall, charter school students outperformed district school students in almost every grade in almost every subject.

He noted that charter schools have some unique advantages that district schools don’t, including their self-selecting nature, which means students and parents who seek out charter schools are often more education-focused than their district-attending peers.

“You have a group of kids who choose to be at a school, who compete to be at a school, you have parents who have the resources to make sure they go to those schools, you’re naturally going to have higher scores. … Now, that’s not to say TUSD or Sunnyside is off the hook. We still have abysmal scores,” he said.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight