Since the first Arizona charter school opened in 1995, charters have seen a steady enrollment boom as parents seek alternative choices to the traditional public-school district.
Statewide, there are 478 charter schools this school year compared to 455 in 2007-08, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association. This year's enrollment will not be known until February, but 100,119 K-12 students were enrolled in 2007-08.
In Pima County, 14,426 students attended 80 charter schools in 2007-08.
Arizona's charter schools are operated by private companies or agencies which contract with the state and are paid by the state for each student they educate. They are smaller than most district schools and are less regulated by the state. No tuition is charged because they are public schools.
Lindy Wilson transferred her sons - Spencer, a first-grader, and Dallin, a third-grader - out of the Laveen Elementary School District because she believed they were not getting the education they needed. "My kids were in the gifted program but they weren't getting challenged enough or getting outside help," Wilson said. "They were bored in class and I just felt like there weren't a lot of resources to help in that area."
She said EAGLE College Prep Elementary School in Phoenix was the right fit for her sons.
"This was a school that had a lot of emphasis on developing character that I try to do in my home," Wilson said.
EAGLE is one of many college-preparatory-type schools, but there are also a number of specialty schools tailored for a particular area of education or specialty.
The Arizona School for the Arts is for sixth- to 12th-grade students focused on performing arts such as music, ballet and theater. It offers the traditional core academics found at any public school but also has an arts requirement such as piano, band or ballet.
Some charter schools have an even more defined specialty.
The Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center is an independent high-school district that offers college-preparatory curriculum at Maricopa County Community College District campuses in the Valley. The school district has specific instruction for students interested in biotechnology, veterinarian studies, equine sciences and agriculture-related fields. The school district is oftentimes referred to as the "Horse School" because of its reputation of having a high quality equine-sciences curriculum.
These specialty schools are one of the reasons for the success of charter schools in Arizona.
Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the policy-research organization Goldwater Institute, said the idea of choice is what attracts parents to charter schools.
"When parents get to choose, no one knows kids better than the parents when it comes to looking for a good fit," Ladner said. "Choice is part of the reason why charter schools are growing the way they are today."
Arizona is one of the leaders of the national charter-school movement, said Larry Pieratt, executive director for university public schools at Arizona State University.
"Arizona charter schools are coming into its own and have risen to a level where it's an integral part of the system," Pieratt said.
Though specialty education and choice are major draws, there are some drawbacks. Transportation is sometimes an issue because some charter schools don't offer buses to pick up and drop off students. There also is the question of whether a charter school is effective. Funding is an issue because charter schools receive about $4,000 for each student enrolled from the state, which is $2,000 less than what public schools receive.
Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said the economy is a concern for charter schools like it is for district schools. But despite these drawbacks, charter schools have managed and grown throughout the Valley because of stringent laws and oversight.
"There is a measure of quality control," Ladner said. "If a charter school has really bad test scores, then parents can say they don't want to go to that charter school. It is a very positive phenomenon that doesn't happen in public schools."
Charter schools are held accountable through the same state tests, such as AIMS, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools can revoke a school's charter should it perform poorly.