(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.