The Empire Strikes Back in 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Score another 2014 win for the bad guys, who defeated an attempt to expand the Arizona ESA program to high-poverty areas of the state yesterday.

The debate on the floor revealed that we choice advocates have a lot of work to do. A pernicious and false idea that came up is one that we are guilty of helping to spread- that we “already have school choice in Arizona.”  Arizona scores relatively well on choice when compared to most other states. We have inter-and intradistrict choice, one of the strongest charter school laws, tuition tax credits and the ESA program.  Arizona is parental choice nirvana, right?

Wrong.

A few years ago I tried to help a woman who lived in south Phoenix find a different school for her children, two of whom had been sent to the hospital as the result of brutal attacks by fellow students.  I put her in touch with a person who has helped parents in her situation for many years.  It was an eye-opening experience.

Let’s start with open enrollment.  This mother found the doors shut in her face.  Let’s just say that it seemed that the fancier districts were not overly interested in kids from south Phoenix and leave it at that.

What about charter schools?  Even South Phoenix charter schools with lousy academics, but where you might hope your daughter might avoid getting a pencil stabbed through the back of her neck, had long waiting lists.  The Great Hearts charter schools alone had a wait list of 10,000 kids last year.

Well you can always apply for a tax credit scholarship.  Except…scholarship groups have thousands more applicants than they can possibly help.

For this mother, it almost may as well been 1993- the year before Arizona passed its charter school law.

The ESA expansion that failed yesterday would have made students living in areas like south Phoenix and south Tucson eligible to participate in the ESA program. The expansion would not have cured the world’s pain nor dried every crying eye, but it could have provided a lifeline to thousands of families like the one described above.

It would be easy to be angry at the people who voted against this expansion, but the truth is that people like me need to look in the mirror and ask how we can do a better job of explaining why this is so important.

 

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