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Reformer Star of the Week: Mark Francis

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Charter schools are just one mechanism of bringing school choice to students. And with 42 states allowing charters (and a shameful 8 that still don’t), charter schools are often the most easily accessible form of school choice.

In recent years, the successes of many of those charter schools have prompted philanthropists to push Charter Management Organizations to scale up with as many schools as possible. Rightly so, but this can sometimes lead us to overlook the importance of the stand-alone or Mom and Pop charter schools and the crucial role they play in the education landscape. Mark Francis, currently the Deputy Associate Superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education, has worked on both sides of this equation—first as the founder of one of Arizona’s finest stand-alone charter schools and then by helping charter schools expand at the Department.

Dr. Francis was the founder of the Arizona School for the Arts (ASA), a Mom and Pop charter school located in downtown Phoenix. The school has long been known for its high-quality academics and devotion to the performing arts. ASA has a number of long-established partnerships with arts organizations (symphonies, ballet, etc.) in the community that makes it both unique and difficult to replicate.

For the kids at ASA, the school is a godsend. A few years ago, ASA staff performed an analysis of the 200 schools its students formerly attended. Of those, 136 schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, ASA is one of the highest-performing A-rated schools—district or charter—in Arizona. And ASA ranks an impressive 9th in the state for schools with the highest SAT scores.

Dr. Francis was among the first wave of charter schools founders in Arizona. Bankers were not going to touch such a speculative enterprise with a ten-foot pole, so Mark and his wife took a second mortgage on their home to cover the startup costs and opened up by renting space in a church building downtown.

I, for one, am incredibly grateful that the Francis family took this risk. I’ll never forget the first day I dropped my oldest son off at ASA. It was the first day of school, and the kids were visibly jazzed to be back in school. The joy they felt to be back was unmistakable. I knew right then and there that we had made a great decision.

Dr. Francis led ASA for years and then retired, only to get drawn back into the charter fight. Today, he administers a grant program for charter schools through the Arizona Department of Education. ASA now owns a multi building campus right next door to the old church campus, and they are still rocking the academic and arts.

I’m not sure Arizona School for the Arts could ever be replicated. I am however enormously grateful that Dr. Francis’ saw through his vision for an academically rigorous performing arts school and passed it on to dedicated and worthy successors.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.