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Charters or Districts? Each Boasts Advantages

Posted On: 2015-05-05

Updated: 10:20 am, Tue May 5, 2015.
By Carrie Vargas, Maricopa Monitor

Supporters of charter schools believe there are many misconceptions about what a charter school is, with most in agreement the biggest is that they are private.

“In Arizona, (charter schools) are public schools that are operated based on a contract with an authorizer to improve student achievement and provide choice,” said Ildi Laczko-Kerr, vice president of academics for the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “These are public schools. They have to provide a lot of the same structures that traditional public schools do; they have to meet the needs of their students in all of the same ways that public schools do.”

One difference between charter schools and district schools is how funding works. District schools receive monies in specific accounts like maintenance and operations and unrestricted capital funds, and the money may only be utilized for needs in that category. Teacher, administrator and staff salaries, for example, come out of the maintenance and operations piece of the funding pie.

Charter school funding works differently.

“In the world of a charter school, there is basically one account,” Laczko-Kerr said. “Like your home budget, you only have a certain amount you get to spend, and that money is generated based on the number of students you are serving in your school. (Charter schools) have to consider teacher pay along with facility costs and so on.”

When it comes to expectations, public charter schools have the same requirements as the traditional school districts.

Requirements for teachers
One of the more noticeable differences between both public education institutions is the state requirements for teachers. By law, teachers in public school districts must hold a valid Arizona teaching certificate and qualify under the federal highly qualified requirements. Charter school teachers, on the other hand, are only obligated to meet the federal highly qualified mandates.

The federal requirements dictate that a teacher must be highly qualified in core content areas demonstrating depth of knowledge for the assigned position or content area; a bachelor’s degree is also required.

In addition, teachers must have either passed subject knowledge exams or national board certification, or have an advanced degree in their core content area, or hold highly qualified reciprocity from another state. Teachers are obligated to fill out the state attestation form each year to demonstrate their highly qualified status. Certified teachers also are required to show completion of a teacher preparation program.

The exception to this rule is special education teachers. Charles Tack, deputy public information officer for the Arizona Department of Education, said in an email that while teachers who teach in a charter school are not required to hold a certificate, there is an exception for special education teachers, who are required to be certified even in a charter school setting under federal law.

All public school teachers, whether at a district or charter school, must also possess a fingerprint clearance card issued through the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

While opponents voice concern that charter school teachers may not be prepared to teach in Arizona classrooms, the number of teachers who are certified versus being only highly qualified are not being tracked by the state. This is because each charter school organization can set its own criteria for teacher hiring practices outside of the federal highly qualified mandate.

What’s a charter to do?
While each public charter school may have its own set of criteria for hiring teachers, interviews with several charter organizations show that most have certified teachers. In fact, many expect their teachers to hold a valid Arizona credential in addition to their highly qualified status.

“Edkey Inc. (Sequoia Schools) requires teachers to be either highly qualified or certified in whatever area they will be teaching,” said Superintendent Curt Cardine. “In our charters, all of our teachers are credentialed and our aides go through a certification process. I believe they should be credentialed.”

Legacy Traditional School Superintendent Bill Bressler agreed.

“Legacy will only hire teachers with state certification, and they must be highly qualified according to federal standards,” he said.

Lead Charter Schools begins with the minimum requirement of hiring highly qualified teachers but does not specifically require teachers to be certificated. Leading Edge Academy Principal Matt Reese said his biggest concern in hiring teachers is how they will help students.

“My only concern is whether they are, according to the charter board, able to teach, whether they are highly qualified or not,” he said. “Then I need to know whether they can make kids successful. Charter schools are more about making kids successful. And you’ve got to find people that are going to do that.”

Tom Beckett, human resources director for the Maricopa Unified School District, which was allowed to charter six of its campuses this year, said MUSD holds to the same standard it held prior to its charter funding.

Luring teachers away?
Teacher pay has never been at the top of any Forbes list, but teachers have choices to make between teaching at a public charter school or school district.

School districts provide benefits, as do charters, with the primary difference being retirement options. School districts pay into the Arizona State Retirement System along with the teachers themselves. But in charter schools, 401(k) and 403(b) programs rule in lieu of the state pension system.

“(State retirement) services are the biggest difference between charters and public schools,” Beckett said. “It’s a primary selling point (to teachers coming to MUSD).”

MUSD, for example, contributes 11.47 percent of pay toward state retirement for its employees. Legacy Traditional kicks in 6 percent toward its employees’ 401(k) options with Bressler noting that some teachers prefer that option.

“All of our employees prefer to have control over their finances,” he said. “We found it to be more effective for teachers to have the autonomy to choose.”

Edkey Inc. is an exception to the rule.

“We are part of AZRS,” Cardine said. “Additionally, we provide staff with health benefits if they choose to select it.”

When it comes to salary, most charters contacted for the story admitted that teacher pay was generally less than at their district counterparts.

“We don’t pay as much,” said Reese. “When you start looking at longevity, 10 or 15 years, there’s a big discrepancy between us and the public schools. But people stay because they don’t have to put up with politics, they’re allowed to teach their class, and you have nice kids who want to be here.”

Bressler went a step further and pointed out the challenges for every public school.

“Compensation will never be what it should be,” he said.

The key to success
Mark Francis, the deputy associate superintendent for the Arizona Charter Schools Program, a division of the Arizona Department of Education, made a presentation in 2012 after studying what makes a charter school successful.

He found there were three important components to a school’s success: Teacher quality (academic program), leadership and its operations plan. Schools that had a higher expectation and stronger hiring practice for their teachers contributed to better state testing scores and the schools’ overall success.

Charters that didn’t spell out their requirements and hiring practices struggled more. More importantly, if the schools’ overall operation plan and leadership weren’t strong and teachers didn’t have buy-in to the mission, vision and goals, those schools seemed to struggle over charters that had strong leadership and plans.

Francis also found class size did not have an impact on the schools observed. He also noted that the level of professional development was key with alignment to student needs.

“I think that in any school environment, in charter schools specifically, but in any school environment when a group of adults and children come together and agree on a shared, common set of goals, mission, vision and values of the school, you’re more likely to get success,” Laczko-Kerr said.

Teacher perspective
Legacy Traditional School second-grade teacher Amanda Ball and Yvette Youngberg, a second-grade teacher at Butterfield Elementary, have taught in both public charter as well as district schools. They agree there are pros and cons to both school types and that parents need to find the approach that best fits them.

Neither teacher spoke about pay, benefits or requirements when asked to share the positives and negatives about each system. In fact, both were quick to focus on the experience of being a teacher at each.

On the positive end, Youngberg noted that in district schools, creativity for teachers is great. Ball agreed.

“I enjoyed being able to use a wide range of teaching methods to best meet the needs of my diverse group of students: teacher-led instruction, small group instruction, educational games (and) group collaboration,” she said.

On the negative side, Ball said that having the basic needs was a challenge in district schools.

“A lack of basic classroom supplies was a serious problem,” she said. “I was spending approximately $300 to $550 of my own money each year just to keep my classroom operating smoothly… I rarely spend my own money at my charter school, and when I do, it is for items that are not critical to the education of my students (choice items).”

Conversely, Youngberg said her experience at the charter school was different when it came to resources.

“In a charter school, there are smaller class sizes and funding available for resources both in curriculum and technology,” she said. “Funding is minimized in district schools.”

Both educators believe parents should research what school is best for their child and do all they can to support their education.

“I would like to say as an educator and a parent, education should come first and to continue to support your local schools,” Youngberg said.

“I do not believe that one of these systems is better than the other,” Ball said. “In both, you will find things that work well and areas in which improvement can be made. Teachers and parents have to be self-reflective about what type of environment will best suit their needs, or the needs of their child(ren). There is no one-size-fits-all approach to education. Both systems share a passion for educating today’s youth in a meaningful and memorable way.”

Reach Maricopa Monitor Editorial Assistant Carrie Vargas at 568-4198 or