The Arizona Republic: Arizona Prods Schools to Focus on Struggling Students

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic put in a great story on A-F school grading on the front page above the fold today. Notice the role of double weighting the learning gains of the students in the bottom 25% in the formula. This year Arizona lawmakers closed loopholes to the 3rd grade retention law and provided new state funding for reading intervention. The expansion of the ESA program has been revised and again sits on Governor Brewer’s desk. With a signature, Arizona will have a major new choice program focusing on special needs students and children attending D/F graded districts and schools- a combination of Florida’s McKay and Opportunity Scholarship programs with some new 21st Century upgrades.

Arizona’s relative poverty is masked by a very large number of wealthy retirees who live here, often only part of the year. If we tried to spend like CT with its blessings of old money and hedge fund billionaires, we’d drive those retirees elsewhere and likely have little to show for it in terms of academic achievement. We also have a relatively challenging student demographic profile, with more low-income and ELL challenges than average. If we want to make progress, we are going to need to play Moneyball and embrace policies that increase the bang for our buck in the system.

Arizona embraced the parental choice strategy beginning in 1994 with a liberal charter school law, and followed that up with the tuition tax credit program. In the aggregate, these programs combined mostly to take the edge off of public school enrollment growth. For every child attending charter schools or using a tax credit scholarship, three new kids were pouring into the districts and the state continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on new district schools- even in very poor performing districts.

The charter school law succeeded in providing a number of very high quality schools and the tax credit programs helped Arizona’s private schools survive the creation of 500+ charters. The parental choice programs were vitally important for tens of thousands of families, but they alone were not at a scale to move the needle much on public school improvement. This was especially the case as policymakers botched other major areas of K-12 policy.

Arizona’s K-12 testing system, for instance, is in recovery from having devolved into a cruel joke on kids. Arizona had the nation’s biggest dummy down vis-a-vis the NAEP on our state AIMS test. The state fielded a deeply flawed version of the Terra Nova exam that curiously found Arizona students to be above the national average in every grade and subject every year, when we as a state had never exceeded a national average on any NAEP exam. Our policymakers put a stop to it. Worse still, we literally still have schools with giant banners out front in 9000 point font boasting of being a “PERFORMING SCHOOL” when in reality “Performing” was the second lowest label possible. The legislature passed a law this session to forbid the use of these deceptive labels going forward.

Things have changed substantially during the downturn. A housing bust was tailor-made to humble Arizona’s economy, and enrollment growth has slowed to a trickle. One silver lining in this very dark cloud is that some of the most successful Arizona charter school networks have executed/are executing ambitious plans to open new schools- real estate is cheaper, they have earned access to capital, and they are making their moves. This is very much for the good. State policymakers have made far-reaching reforms on not only transparency and parental choice, but in teacher evaluation and the curtailment of social promotion.

We’ve still got miles to go and challenges ahead, but Arizona is on the way to improved learning.



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