Destruction of Public Education or Pressure Release Valve? You Make the Call…

AZ enrollment trends

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This is what the “destruction of public education” looks like in extremist, wild west Arizona…oh….wait…what? The increase in district enrollment is greater than the growth in charter school students since the creation of the law charter law in 1994 and 2012-176,989 to 128,427?

Yeah, but…

What is that you say? Even if you combine all of Arizona’s private choice students with all the charter school students, the increase in district enrollment still outstrips the increase in choice enrollment 176,989 to 159,014?

Ok but if those choice programs didn’t exist, the number of students and the amount of money going to districts would be higher than it is now. So…

High demand schools surrounded by portable buildings? C’mon that would never happen! Already common in Texas? Arizona has been broke since 2007, unable to afford much new district building space eh? Well we could just raise taxes…what? Arizonans raise millions of private dollars to finance charter and private school spaces? Census Bureau projects hundreds of thousands more students over the next 15 years? Already high elderly population set to vastly expand too?

Ok, sign me up.


7 Responses to Destruction of Public Education or Pressure Release Valve? You Make the Call…

  1. allen says:

    Yes, but it’s the trend that’s scary.

    Charters were a political expedient to help the public education establishment avoid the taint of intransigence in the face of continuing public unhappiness with the public education system. When public attention waned, as it had in previous episodes of public unhappiness with the public education system, charters would receive the “boa constrictor” treatment from the public education establishment and that would be that.

    But public attention didn’t wane and there was never a good time to really put the screws to charters. Now charter schools are starting to emerge as an existential threat to the district system and the cognizance of the threat’s observable in the action last year of New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio and here in Michigan in saber-rattling by the state board of education and the Democrat minority in the legislature.

    Where the threat’s most keenly felt is in a number of municipal school districts. Detroit’s district, the Detroit City Schools district, or as it’s more widely known, Detroit Public Schools, now enrolls a minority of the public education kids within the district. 55% now go to charters or out of district schools and that percentage will rise next year as new charters open.

    It hardly requires the services of a gypsy fortuneteller to see where that sort of thing’s headed and the prospect of a school district being chosen out of existence is a threat to the existence of the entire public education establishment. As inflexible, unresponsive and wasteful as school districts are if there’s no alternative you learn to live with it. But the first time a school district falls because parents are no longer interested in its offering is the last time the inevitability of the school district is beyond question.

  2. matthewladner says:


    I won’t deny that DPS is in big trouble, but out here in AZ it appears that the impact of choice in the first 20 years was merely to slow the rate of enrollment growth in the districts.

    • allen says:

      Different situation, different story arc.

      DPS has enjoyed the benefits of racially-polarized municipal politics along with the collapse of the dominant industry. Perhaps there are other factors but the result’s been a school district that’s awful by just about any measure. When charters showed up there was a lot of pent up demand for something, anything but the DPS.

      That’s translated into explosive, by the standards of the institution, growth in charter enrollment. Three years ago the DPS enrolled 69% of the public education kids in the district. Now it’s 45% and a number of charters will be opening in the next school year.

      So there’s been a steadily rising percentage of kids attending charters. But change doesn’t necessarily stay continuous. When a critical factor rises above some not-necessarily-obvious threshold change becomes discontinuous. The public education lobby is getting nervous at the rise of alternatives, particularly charters, since they’re starting to fear that discontinuity is no longer somewhere off in the distant future.

      What connects the DPS and, among other education venues, Arizona is the context within which this change is occurring – politics.

      The public education system’s built on the district model and much of the durability of that model springs from a lack of alternatives. There was the public education system, everywhere and always built on the district model, and there was everything else. Charters are eroding the unquestioned nature of the school district as the only means by which public education can be accomplished.

      But that erosion can’t remain continuous. At some point a critical juncture will be reached and that will be when the school district’s no longer seen as the unquestionable foundation of public education.

      New Orleans didn’t establish that view because school districts being literally blown away are uncommon. Assumptions about the validity and value of the concept of the school district won’t spring from that sort of singular occurrence. But if a fairly large, municipal school district is rendered superfluous by the freely-made choices of the parents who reside within the district it’s much more difficult to avoid the conclusion that school districts aren’t necessary to accomplish the education of the public’s children.

      Puncturing the belief that the school district’s the single means by which public education’s accomplished though won’t be news limited to the Detroit area. The political underpinnings of public education mean that when the DPS is shown to be superfluous the question of the value of every other school district becomes legitimate. Once people start asking questions it’s pretty tough to get them to stop and if your world is built on people not asking tough questions you’re in deep trouble.

      • matthewladner says:

        Well maybe but here in AZ there were less than 31k private choice kids, charters still public schools and the districts have more students than ever, at least in 2012 which was the latest date that I could get data for all three sectors.

        Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states and more popular than ever but I have a hard time seeing it as an existential threat to anything.

  3. […] the destruction of the public schools?  That’s a claim Matt Ladner asks in a recent blog post on Jay P. Greene's Blog. Arizona’s vast array of school choice programs offers the perfect lab to see how school choice […]

  4. […] they operate to better serve students and parents. But as education policy analyst Matthew Ladner observed recently, enrollment at Arizona’s district schools has significantly outpaced the growth in […]

  5. […] they operate to better serve students and parents. But as education policy analyst Matthew Ladner observed recently, enrollment at Arizona’s district schools has significantly outpaced the growth in the […]

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