But that was 30 years ago when they used to have a show

August 11, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Barry Manilow’s classic song Copacabana is a very catchy upbeat tune with a sad underlying story about a person living in the past:

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in dress she used to wear
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind

For reasons that may become apparent if you read it, this column responding to one published by myself and Lisa Graham Keegan in the Arizona Republic brought the unfortunate image of Lola to mind. Our opponent’s column is a pretty standard recitation of anti-choice talking points, but there is an underlying sadness to it in my opinion.

Arizona lawmakers passed charter schools in 1994 and the first private choice program in 1997.  So thirty years ago districts were effectively Arizona’s only show. We had parental choice back in those days, but it was the old-fashioned kind. If you could afford to buy a house in Scottsdale etc. or to pay for the tuition at Brophy Prep, you had choice in the lost near monopoly era of Arizona K-12. Otherwise, it was unfortunate to be you.

I’ve written on this blog previously just how awful the results were from this era. The NAEP gave us state level data from 1992 and 1994 before our policymakers began any effort to broaden the ability to exercise choice. Only 28% of Anglo 4th graders read proficiently in, er, English in 1992. Arizona still has a lot of work to do, but at least has been trending in the right direction.

I’m not going to bother to point by point this column, but rather to simply focus on a few faded feathers in its hair. Approximately 3,000 children participate in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program, and the majority of them are children with disabilities. Arizona has a great many individual high schools with more than 3,000 students, and yet in the fever dreams of opponents these kids should be made into scapegoats for all the problems of public education. It’s sad.

Arizona has been leading the nation in 4th to 8th cohort gains on NAEP, but rather than celebrate this fact and seek more, some would rather wallow in learned helplessness, convinced that they can’t do better unless they receive money that the state does not have. It’s sad.

Part and parcel of this complaint is to claim that districts take “all comers” while charter do not. Arizona charters however must conduct admission lotteries while district open enrollment decisions are left entirely to the schools. Fancy district schools are open to “all comers” if you can afford to purchase housing in their attendance zones, otherwise they all to often resemble Aspen vacations or shiny new German sports sedans- wonderful things if you can afford them. We started the process to democratize the opportunity to choose, but some prefer to keep choice as a privilege for the few rather than the birthright of all. It’s sad.

Charter schools have been in operation in Arizona for over twenty years. Some district educators have taken up the challenge to compete and I admire them for it. Others spend their time complaining about charter schools non-stop.  Charter school students score like a New England state on NAEP with a majority minority student population and show even an even larger advantage in the state exam, but….lawmakers didn’t include them in a seldom-read auditor general report, so ah they must be evil.

Some (not all by a longshot!) spend their efforts yearning for a near monopoly era that is never coming back.  In my youth growing up in the South I can remember a few old people who would babble about the “War of Northern Aggression” and whatnot. It’s a bad look to live in the past. There are real and very deep issues to debate when fashioning choice policy but to engage in them seriously one must broaden beyond stale talking points. Quite frankly Arizona districts deserve better advocacy strategies than complaining about the disco ball while yearning for what was more of a stone than a golden age. This “strategy” is unworthy of the dignity of the great many outstanding educators working very hard in Arizona’s improving district school system.

It’s time to lose the faded feathers.