Recall Challenge for Arizona ESA expansion

August 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Anti-choice activists delivered 111,540 petition signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office two days ago in advance of the deadline in order to subject SB 1431 (2017 ESA expansion) to a vote of the public. Whether or not this will result in the number of legally required valid signatures remains unclear- judging from the previous history of validity rates it is very likely to be close either way. It will take weeks before we have a final answer. Only the expansion of the program, rather than the program itself, faces uncertainty. The program will continue to operate for the students eligible under the previous law without interruption.

What “Save Our Schools” group has done is both impressive and misguided. The chattering classes in Arizona, including me, were broadly skeptical regarding their chances. Gathering signatures out in the summer Arizona heat is an indicator of real passion. Their fury however were deeply misplaced. The real victims here are the hundreds of parents who had submitted an application to the Department of Education to participate and the larger number who had planned to apply.

Last Friday at a public Arizona Talks debate, Zeus Rodriguez made the point that the question of whether to have parental choice and the question of how much to spend on public schools are entirely separate decisions. Choice opponents seem to fail to appreciate that school funding decisions are reached democratically (both directly and indirectly) and that districts remain (by far) the best funded option both in absolute and on a per student basis. The fixation on the ESA program as a boogeyman is especially odd. Approximately 3,500 students participated in the AZESA program last year- we have multiple individual high schools with more students. Whether you examine numbers of students or dollars invested, the absurdity of blaming private choice for every district grievance becomes clear:

and in terms of dollars:

Funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in the Arizona Constitution and this provision enjoys the broad support of the public. It is under no threat from anyone as far as I can tell. The history of the last 22 years demonstrates that even the district portion of public education has more kids and more money than when parental choice experiments began. Fast growing states do not in other words face a zero sum game. Had Arizona choice supporters been out to “destroy public education” in the state the two charts above demonstrate that this imaginary effort would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

Fortunately, our real project is entirely different.

The evidence supporting the real project (improving variety, diversity and performance) is much stronger. Arizona has more choice options than any other state, and alone among all states made statistically significant progress on all six NAEP exams for the entire period that we can track all exams (2009-2015). When you net out significant declines from increases the typical state saw one significant increase during this period.  Arizona students made more progress on math 2009 and 2013 as 4th/8th graders, and then did it again between 2011 and 2015. This of course does not prove that choice caused the improvement, but when you take a close look at the gains, it is very difficult indeed to argue that they have hurt:

Stay tuned to see what happens next. My sympathies lie entirely with the families who just had an opportunity yanked away just before the start of the school year.

 

 


Arizona Students with Disabilities thrive during choice era

May 16, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the chance to meet some of the folks from Raise Your Hand Texas a few years ago, and they seemed entirely delightful and respectable people. I’m afraid however that they have rushed off to form a judgement about the subject of education freedom from students with disabilities without examining the available evidence. We have statistical analyses of the impact of such programs on student outcomes for children with disabilities, surveys of parental satisfaction for participating parents, etc. but in the end this comes down to a gut check: do you believe choice for children with disabilities should be limited to those who can pay for it themselves or hire high-priced attorneys? Or do you believe that everyone can benefit from giving all children with disabilities the opportunity to seek education solutions with their share of funds?

Put me down in the latter category. If you put yourself in the former category, please feel free to explain how Arizona children with disabilities managed to show such strong gains during a period when they were being “oppressed” by not one but two different private choice programs for children with disabilities. You don’t have to trust me- go look up the numbers yourself.

As you can see, a large number of states (including Texas) either made zero progress or else saw declining scores for students with disabilities during this period. None of the states with functioning private choice programs for children with disabilities made it into the “Zero or less” club. Oddly enough several states with such programs operating during this period made it into the top 10, including Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and Indiana. Others with long-standing programs-including Florida and Utah- had more modest gains during this period but high overall scores in 2015 (NAEP science scores only go back to 2009 in the current framework).

None of this demonstrates that private choice programs drive academic improvement for students with disabilities remaining in public schools. Far more thorough studies make that case. The opposite proposition that such programs harm the academic progress of children remaining in districts- can survive neither a cursory examination of evidence nor formal statistical evaluation.

It is deeply misguided for Raise Your Hand Texas to attempt to “protect” Texas children with disabilities from more diverse schooling options, the ability to hire certified academic tutors and therapists, assistive technologies etc. Given a 12 year long effort on the part of the Texas Education Agency and 1,054 Texas school districts to undermine the intent of IDEA, I’m inclined to think that these children could use some protection from the public schooling system-as in the option to leave. As for the question of whether participating students have things to gain, you should listen to parents directly involved:


Robb: Free Your Mind

April 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb provided an insightful summary of the choice debate overall while commenting on the ESA expansion fight here in the Cactus Patch, but with broad applicability:

….the debate about vouchers isn’t really about money. The argument that vouchers drain district schools of resources has always been a diversion.

Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children.

The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.

Voucher supporters believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. A proportionate share of the common pool should be available irrespective of whether that choice is a district, charter or private school. The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.

Voucher opponents believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools voucher opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe it is suboptimal.

As Morpheus put it “What is the Matrix? Control.”

In other words, some people view children primarily as funding units for a system that employs a large number of adults. The other side views students as human beings with a huge diversity of needs and aspirations, a large number of which will not be met in a 19th Century Prussian factory model of service provision with a monopoly on the common pool funds. We have very helpfully moved away from this in Arizona, but each new step seems to elicit a fresh burst of misguided outrage. Robb used the term chess pieces, I prefer “funding units” but “copper tops” might be the most apt term:

 

 

 


Governor Doug Ducey signs AZ Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion

April 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the expansion of the ESA program into law, becoming the first Governor to deliver on a sizable expansion of parental choice during the 2017 legislative sessions. The torch has been passed to a new generation of governors.

The other states are invited to hop on in-the water is fine!


Arizona Legislature Sends ESA expansion to tribal lands bill to Governor

April 2, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Senator Carlyle Begay succeeded today in passing SB 1332, which will expand eligibility to the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to all children living on tribal lands. Senator Begay bravely faced a great deal of hostility from his own party on this issue, but correctly noted in committee testimony that the state ought to be seeking every possible way to get better results in Arizona’s tribal schools, and there was no reason to expect a mass exodus.

NAEP backs this position up completely:

Az American Indian NAEP

Congratulations to Senator Begay for leading on an important and difficult issue for the children in his district.  Congrats also for the Arizona choice coalition that worked very hard through an especially trying legislative session.

UPDATE: Senator Begay stated the following in a recent column“Serving in the Arizona State Legislature is not a popularity contest, nor is it a platform for grandstanding. I am here to serve my district, serve my state and uphold the progressive values that keep me moving forward.”

Two additional Democrats in the Arizona Senate joined Senator Begay in voting for final passage.

!!BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!


The Daily Signal on AZ ESA

December 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It warms my heart every time I get to visit a school like the one in the video above.


Render Unto Caesar what is Caesar’s

May 1, 2014

St. John's

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I had the opportunity to visit St. John the Evangelist school in Tucson. St. John is one of three Catholic schools on the south side of Tucson that entered into a partnership with the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame.

It was a deeply gratifying visit.

Greatschools rates the academic performance of nearby public schools as 2 out of 10 stars. St. John’s student body draws from an area of Tucson that is overwhelmingly Hispanic and low-income.  In the capital city of Phoenix, one frequently talk about how the RAND corporation found that if you “control for demographics” that Arizona NAEP scores are middling rather than rock bottom. This of course is a coded way of at least implying that we should not expect students like those filling the halls of St. John’s to learn.

Fortunately the St. John’s children are having none of such nonsense. I walked in to a kindergarten classroom, where I was greeted by a young man with a hand-shake.  He announced to me:

My name is Caesar and I am going to college in 2026!  Today we are studying letters and words.

I’m sure you can guess my reaction, something along the lines of:

!!!!!!!!!!!BOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!

The staff provided some details on the progress of the school during the partnership period. Through the hard work of the students and the faculty, both scores and enrollment have strongly improved.  The University has leveraged their network to create tax credit resources for the schools.  It is difficult work, but they are on their way.

Christian Dallavis, the Director of Notre Dame Ace Academies, provided the following slide as a part of a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year.  The slide is a representation of the decision tree used by Ace Academy folks to discover which of the Arizona choice programs for which students may qualify.

ND Ace Funding

 

If that looks more than a little convoluted, it is only because it is in fact convoluted. During the last session, choice advocates suffered an unfortunate setback in the Arizona House. Choice champion Debbie Lesko attempted to pass a provision to allow children living in high poverty zip codes to participate in the ESA program. Given that the entire state testing system is currently in complete chaos without anyone knowing even what test will be given to students next year, the D/F rated school provision seems more than a little unstable.

Now the alphabet soup groups are seizing upon a drafting error from last session in an effort to turn the minimum funding for general education students from $4,800 to $3,200. Mind you that the districts get around $9,000 per child. The Superintendent of Public Instruction has publicly stated that the legislative intent of the law is clear, but the alphabets blocked clarifying language from passing in the legislature and have threatened to file suit against the department if the Superintendent follows the clear intent of the law.

I know some of these opponents well enough to say with some certainty that they could not possibly see what I had seen, look students like Caesar in the eye, and tell him “Sorry Caesar the dysfunctional system down the street needs you as a funding unit.  I hope that whole 2026 thing works out for you somehow but the needs of the system come first.”  The basic humanity of choice opponents would prevent them from doing such a thing, but the actions of their organizations seek just such an outcome.

Caesar deserves a decent shot to succeed in life.  Arizona policymakers should do everything they can to give it to him. Moreover, we should give thanks that institutions like St. John’s are willing to work so hard to help him achieve his potential.

UPDATE Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal released a statement today saying that after careful study of the statute and consultation with legal counsel that he has instructed Arizona Department of Education staff to fund the ESA accounts in accordance with the legislative intent of the 2013 statute. Legal action designed to strip additional funding from students like those described above will commence in 5, 4, 3, 2…