Arizona: When 500 charter schools are not enough

This is the first in an occasional series of articles about state-level education reform and its national implications. To write an essay on your state, please contact Liam Julian.

As immigration debates heat up in the U.S., so, too, does education's role in the discussion. Can our current public education system-which already does a poor job educating its young population-be expected to handle the surging numbers of non-English-speaking youngsters? Can the growing number of charter schools and other schools of choice create enough opportunities for those who need it? A look at Arizona provides some early answers. 

The Grand Canyon State's education system faces two major challenges. The first is the state's rapidly growing population. Between 2000 and 2003, Arizona's total population grew by 450,000 people at a rate three times the national average. And over the past five years, public school enrollment has soared 13 percent. Major increases in Hispanics largely explains both trends. The result? In 1992, the state's public schools were 60 percent Anglo and 27 percent Hispanic. In 2002, they were 49 percent Anglo (and falling) and 37 percent Hispanic (and rising). Arizona's public school population is a "majority minority."

The second problem is the state's continuing failure to arm students, particularly its non-Anglo population, with the skills necessary to succeed in the modern economy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that 63 percent of Arizona's Hispanic fourth-graders failed to demonstrate basic literacy skills in English, while 67 percent of its black students also score below basic. A nothing-to-write-home-about 30 percent of Anglos didn't meet the mark, either. What the demographic and NAEP data suggest is that Arizona schools suffer not from a changing demographic profile so much as from a general inability to educate non-affluent children.

This seems surprising, especially since Arizona has been in the forefront of choice-based education reform. It enacted the nation's strongest charter school law in 1994 and now has 449 charter schools educating over 96,000 youngsters-approximately 10 percent of the state's public school students. It ranks first on the Manhattan Institute's "educational freedom" index. Moreover, the data show those choice-based reforms have been effective for students and schools.

In their study of charter school achievement, Lewis Solomon and Pete Goldschmidt found that charter students made greater academic progress than students in Arizona's district public schools. And Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby demonstrated that, when faced with charter school competition, Arizona public schools made stronger than average academic gains (see here).

With such solid evidence of choice-based improvement at the micro (student and school) levels, why aren't aggregate scores improving faster?

Because the benefits that competition brings-in aggregate-are being dulled by the burgeoning student population. That increase is effectively blunting the competitive impact of existing school choice programs.
 
Thus, some of the worst-performing public schools in the state remain relatively unaffected by school choice. Consider the Roosevelt Elementary District. Of 18 Roosevelt schools, 14 scored in the bottom 10 percent in reading, math, or both, on national norm-referenced tests. Yet now, even after losing children to newly opened charter schools, Roosevelt still enrolls a few hundred more students than it did years earlier, because there are so many new students who need a place to attend school.

In theory, inter-district choice and charter schools should provide options to distressed parents in districts such as Roosevelt. In reality, area charter schools have long waiting lists, and neighboring school districts lack space for transfers (or covertly will not accept them). Thus, Roosevelt's schools have been abysmal for years, but many of the district's parents have nowhere else to go. In short, even Arizona's aggressive education reforms haven't kept up with the needs of the state's swelling student population.

State lawmakers can do more. The obvious solution is to create many more charter schools and other schools of choice to meet growing parental demand. At the same time, they should untie the hands of traditional public schools so that they can serve additional students and become more competitive. Lawmakers could start by realizing that top-notch teachers-not small classes-are the key to student success, and by making teacher quality one of their top priorities. Let the best teachers-those whose students have demonstrated consistently high academic performance on a value-added scale-teach larger classes, and pay them more. If the demand is there, supply shouldn't limit the options for Arizona's students. Make teacher performance data available to parents and give them not just a choice between schools, but also between teachers.

Such reforms will face strenuous opposition from the usual suspects. But as student populations rise throughout the nation, citizens will not be able to confront new education setbacks with old solutions. Arizona is experiencing a student population boom, and lawmakers have embraced school choice to offset the growing numbers. But they must do more-starting with a reexamination of the way classes are taught, and a reexamination of who's teaching them. America's education reformers should keep one eye on the Grand Canyon State. Its successes and failures may soon be those of the nation.

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