22 Jul Like school choice in Arizona? Here’s your wake-up call
Opinion: School choice advocates shouldn’t assume a favorable political climate in Arizona. There are some ill winds blowing.
The most immediate threat is Proposition 305, on the ballot this November. Opponents of private school vouchers have adroitly set this one up so that they win whatever the outcome. And school choice advocates sleepwalked into the trap.
Arizona’s voucher program was limited to students in particular categories, such as those with special needs or attending failing schools.
The Legislature expanded eligibility to any student, but capped participation at 30,000, which is roughly 3 percent of all students.
Voucher opponents successfully circulated petitions to refer the expansion to the ballot. Voters will decide. A yes vote will uphold the expansion. A no vote would repeal the law.
Voucher opponents can win by losing
Voucher opponents win either way. If voters reject Prop. 305, then the expansion does not take place.
If, however, voters approve Prop. 305, the 30,000 cap becomes voter protected, and would require a three-fourths votes of both chambers of the Legislature to be increased. Given the fierce hostility of Democrats to private school vouchers, that hurdle could never be cleared.
A voucher program that, at most, covers 3 percent of students isn’t worth a big ballot fight. If there is going to be such a fight, school choice advocates should want it over universal vouchers with no caps.
The Legislature should have repealed the expansion, conceding this round to voucher opponents. But the school choice movement was outmaneuvered by voucher opponents, who can now win even by losing.
The heart of the success of the school choice movement in Arizona, however, isn’t private school vouchers. Despite subsidies in the range of $200 million a year, between the voucher program and various tax credits, there is no evidence that private school enrollment in Arizona has increased.
Instead, the heart of the success is in the rise of charter schools in Arizona.
Charter schools have been a rousing success
Virtually all the growth in enrollment in Arizona is going to charter schools, which now educate nearly 180,000 students.
The charter school movement in Arizona has been a rousing academic success. As Matt Ladner, a scholar with the Charles Koch Institute, has pointed out, charter school students in Arizona perform on national tests near the top of students from any state.
Students attending district schools have also benefited from the charter competition. Arizona students lead the nation in gains on the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress. Taken alone, district school students in Arizona beat the national average by an impressive margin.
Arizona has seen the establishment of several highly successful charter systems, which are now taking what they developed in Arizona to other states. BASIS and Great Hearts are the best-known examples.
A threat to charter school systems
Exemption from the state procurement code is a necessary component of the development of these entrepreneurial enterprises. Educational entrepreneurs aren’t going to go to the trouble, or be successful, if they can’t control their creation.
Without the exemption, Arizona wouldn’t have highly successful charter systems. We would have mostly standalone schools launched by frustrated educators, not educational entrepreneurs looking to build an enterprise.
But there are those who are offended by the idea that someone would make a buck off of education. And those who think that charters should operate like districts – despite the greater success of charters in attracting and educating students.
It’s easy for politicians, particularly Republican ones, to say that they support charter schools. It’s something else to know what makes the charter system in Arizona successful and defend the elements that strike many as counterintuitive, such as the exemption from the procurement code.
Indeed, in a recent meeting with The Republic’s editorial board, not a single Republican candidate for state superintendent was willing to defend that exemption.
The school choice movement in Arizona has, in recent years, taken a favorable political climate for granted. That’s no longer wise.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.