More than 2,000 parents, students, teachers, policymakers and school choice supporters this morning gathered at the state Capitol to celebrate the opportunities and excellent educational options available to Arizona families. Our state’s leaders, from Sen. John McCain to Gov. Doug Ducey, are talking about the role school choice has played in moving Arizona’s education system forward.
According to the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Leaders and Laggards report, Arizona has one of the most robust school choice environments in the country. Not only do we have strong public charter laws, but our district schools are open to all students thanks to Arizona’s open enrollment policy. Arizona is a national leader for public district school choice, earning the bragging right of being the first in the country to include a school boards association as a National School Choice Week partner. Gov. Ducey in his comments today rightly had high praise for our friend Janice Palmer for her excellent work at the Arizona School Boards Association.
As a parent, I’ve taken full advantage of these policies, shopping both district and charter schools to find the best fit for each of our three girls.
As a result, our state is currently home to three of the top 10 high schools in the country: BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Oro Valley, which are public charters, and University High School in Tucson, which is a magnet school. While scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (“NAEP,” known also as the “Nation’s Report Card”) sunk or remained stagnant, Arizona’s improved, and we were among the top states in the nation in closing the achievement gap. And the icing on the cake? If Arizona’s charter school students were their own state, they would have performed on par with the top-scoring Massachusetts. Kudos to Dr. Matt Ladner for digging into the data to uncover this critical nugget.
And our robust charter sector doesn’t deliver high quality results in just the high-income zip codes. Kim Chayka’s Academies of Math and Science is proving each day that we can earn great results regardless of neighborhood demographics. AMS is our state’s answer to KIPP.
While a combination of robust choice and innovative options means that an excellent education is a reality for many Arizona families, it is still not the case for enough of Arizona’s families. Too many students are stuck on long waiting lists. I consider students who are currently enrolled at a D or F-level school to also be on a “waiting list,” too.
Through our work with A for Arizona, led by former state superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, who Gov. Ducey called one of “the most hard-working and influential school choice champions on the planet,” and Dr. Matt Ladner, whom I rank as the top architect in the country when it comes to school choice design, we have a set of proposals that will provide even more choice and more quality to our system.
Here’s what we need now at the ballot and legislatively to expand quality choice:
- Voter ratification of Proposition 123. Voters must pass this plan to inject $3.5 billion over 10 years of new dollars into all public schools.
- At the legislative level, we already know what we want from our schools: students who graduate ready for college and the job market. We should use any available state resources to reward schools who are consistently getting this job done.
- That starts with restoration of CTE funding. These programs service more than 98,000 students statewide and see graduation rates of 98 percent.
- For those on the academic track, we know that college success rates increase significantly for those who take and pass AP-type exams. The Governor’s budget contains a truly big idea here. Rewarding schools that can prepare students to pass these exams will improve college success and save families millions of dollars as kids reduce the number of credits necessary for a college degree.
- Reduce the cost of capital. Every dollar spent on interest is a dollar absent from a teacher’s pocket. The Governor has a plan to help schools that want to grow and access cheaper money, thus freeing up dollars to hire more quality teachers, increase the size of their school, or build a new building. This is important to clearing kids from waiting lists.
- Compensate those schools providing dramatically more seat time in K-8 with a focus on low-income schools that prove academic success. Perhaps the most important takeaway from working with our A for Arizona schools has been that schools that are closing the achievement gap in a significant way are doing it by giving the state an average of five additional weeks of free time. This is noble, but not sustainable. To get these schools to scale, we should compensate these extraordinary teachers and leaders for the extra quality time-on-task they provide.
- Along those same lines, we should incentivize the growth of our highest performing schools by offering school recognition bonuses to schools that get to or stay at the “A” level.
- Implement a common application system for all Arizona public schools. Cities like New Orleans, Washington, DC and New York City have adopted common application systems to make it easier for parents to exercise their choice.
- And finally, Uberize our school transportation system. As New Orleans education reform leader Neerav Kingsland puts it, “Choice isn’t choice without a ride.”
While we will continue to push for policies to guarantee every Arizona family access to a high-quality choice, today is a day to celebrate the extraordinary gains we’ve made. So, throw on your yellow scarves and break out your National School Choice Week dance moves, here comes Arizona
Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce