Arizona’s success with charter schools a model other states would be wise to follow

Matthew Ladner

Editor’s note: This commentary by redefinED executive editor Matt Ladner appeared Nov. 8 in the National Review.

Americans remain deeply committed to the goal of a public-education system that promotes class mobility and equality of opportunity. We want such a system so badly that we have continued to support increases in public-education funding despite decades of disappointing academic results. The looming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation may mark the beginning of the end of these spending increases, as our desire for a strong public-school system is overtaken by our demands for more and more health-care spending. Increasing the learning bang for the education buck will be vital in years ahead. And Arizonans have managed to do so on a large scale with charter schools, open enrollment, and families taking the lead on accountability.

Year after year, glum news about American schooling repeats with a deadening regularity. Politics, as opposed to voluntary associations, dominate the current American K-12 landscape. Districts assign students to schools by ZIP code. Turnout in district school-board elections is notoriously low, often falling into the single digits. This leaves such elections highly susceptible to “regulatory capture” by highly motivated special-interest groups, particularly public-employee unions and district contractors. Well-meaning efforts by federal and state authorities have attempted to address this problem by imposing universal standards on our sprawling, decentralized system of schools from far away. These efforts have failed to substantially improve outcomes while draining local communities of control over their schools.

Arizona charter schools, an outlier experiment in liberty, provide the template for a better approach. Arizona is unusual in that it is both a border state and a retirement destination and has large average family sizes. The aforementioned retirement of the Baby Boomers and immigration have helped create decades of strong population growth in the state. In the mid-1990s, Arizona lawmakers found themselves financially struggling to build district schools fast enough to keep up with enrollment growth, and the academic results left a great deal to be desired. In 1994, they decided to roll the dice on charter schools.

Minnesotans had passed the nation’s first charter-school law a few years earlier. The state funded charter schools on a per-student basis, they were public schools governed independently from district boards, and any state resident could attend. Struggling to keep up with enrollment growth and frustrated by languishing academic performance, Arizona was drawn to Minnesota’s innovation, which created new school space without state funds. The idea of giving educators the opportunity to build their own schools also appealed to Arizona’s libertarian political culture. With little to lose and much to gain, a coalition of Hispanic Democrats and Republicans passed one of the nation’s most liberal charter-school statutes.

Arizona charter schools took root in urban, rural, and suburban communities across the state. This was a departure from most other state charter programs, which focused primarily on inner-city schooling. And it created unexpected benefits for inner-city children by helping to unlock opportunities for open-enrollment transfers to suburban districts.

Housing construction is a large industry in Arizona, and a national housing downturn that deterred people from selling their homes and moving to the state hit its economy early and hard. Times were very tough, but the dire circumstances led to a flourishing of charter organizations that could still access private financing and remained in high demand among parents. As property values dropped, the availability of high-demand places in charter schools grew to meet family demand. The main impact of this increase, ironically, was to make suburban district seats available through open enrollment.

Part of the 1994 Arizona reforms forbade districts to charge tuition to out-of-boundary students wishing to transfer to a new school. State law requires districts to have an open-enrollment policy, but that doesn’t mean there will always be a place at every school for whoever wants it. Competition from charter schools and to a lesser extent private-choice programs created a growing incentive for suburban public-school districts to participate in open enrollment. The first suburban open-enrollment participants increased the incentive for others to accept transfers to schools farther from their homes.

Today, unusually, almost all Arizona districts accept open-enrollment transfers. Scottsdale Unified, a district of 22,000 students, has 4,000 students who live outside the district boundaries. The 9,000 students who live within the district’s boundaries but choose to attend schools elsewhere have a great deal to do with the district’s decision to accept out-of-boundary transfers.

Arizona has the largest state charter sector in the country, but open-enrollment transfers between and within districts are larger still, outnumbering charter enrollment almost two-to-one in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Rather than withering under a theoretical tyranny of family autonomy, Arizona’s overall academic performance has improved across student subgroups. Arizona’s white, Hispanic, and black eighth graders demonstrated a mastery of math equivalent to what their peers would have shown as ninth graders in 2003, the first year the Nation’s Report Card exams included all 50 states. Arizona charter schools contributed directly to these gains.

The increase in academic diversity and pluralism is even more important than the improved test scores. Freed to pursue their own vision of a high-quality education, Arizona educators have created successful schools focusing on classical education, the arts, sports, and science and technology, as well as specialized schools for students with autism and other disabilities. Federal efforts to standardize American schools have had the unfortunate consequence of diminishing the autonomy of educators and the distinctiveness of the education that students are provided. States have dictated what teachers should teach grade by grade, homogenizing schooling in hopes of improving it. Arizona’s smarter, demand-driven approach has allowed schools to specialize and to meet the desires of families in the process.

Take, for instance, the closure of underperforming charter schools. In other states, whose charter systems don’t unlock open enrollment, competition is constrained. Elaborate accountability systems run into various roadblocks as educators and families (often understandably) resist bureaucratic school closures. Arizona’s system, by contrast, allows families to quickly and easily shut down charter schools based upon their own priorities, rather than those of the state. There are no appeals, no protests, no lawsuits: If Arizona families fail to develop confidence in their kids’ charter schools, those schools will quickly find that they lack the students necessary to operate.

Freedom is never more than a single generation away from extinction, of course. Arizonans must fight in order to prevent their schools from being undermined or smothered by unnecessary regulation going forward. If Arizonans rise to this challenge, a brighter future of schools led by educators and shaped by families awaits. Issues to work on include student transportation, transparency in open enrollment, and financially incentivizing schools to prepare students for post-secondary success whether in college or a career. The next frontier in Arizona’s story should be to liberate district schools rather than putting educators in regulatory chains.

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