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Commentary: Choice will help alleviate public school overcrowding

Matthew Ladner

We can’t spend our way out of this problem.
Total education funding now consumes more than 60 percent of Arizona’s general fund. But there is no pleasing some.
John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, says the bi-partisan budget deal “represents a monumental missed opportunity.” Despite receiving a nearly half billion dollar funding increase for public k-12 schools, Mr. Wright argues that still more spending is necessary.
The Nation’s Report Card reveals almost half of Arizona’s public school fourth graders can’t read at a basic level despite taxpayer funding of more than $8,000 per student. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil in Arizona has more than tripled since 1960. If we could spend our way out of this problem, we would have done so long ago.
National Educational Association President Reg Weaver describes his union as the “guardian of the status-quo.” Given that one in three American public high school students drops out, that’s a telling statement. Fortunately, Arizona policymakers recognize that “steady as she goes” doesn’t mean clear sailing.
Arizona faces serious obstacles in education. Districts are struggling to keep up with facility needs. Faced with a burgeoning student population, the School Facilities Board no longer pays for basic school features such as parking lots and playground equipment.
We find ourselves in this fix despite 500 charter schools, tuition tax credits and a vigorous home-schooling movement. Arizona’s newly passed and expanded school choice measures will help approximately 8,000 students. In the absence of these alternatives, the public school overcrowding problem would be even worse.
The Census projects that Arizona’s under-18 population will be twice as large in 2030 as it was in 2000 (2.6 million compared with 1.3 million). To meet the coming demand we must do much more.
Overcrowding is a quantity problem, and a serious one. Our quality problem, however, is even more severe. If Arizona attempts to address these problems by thinking inside the box, disaster will surely follow. Expanding school choice could help alleviate both quantity and quality problems.
The top seven publicly funded middle schools in Maricopa County, for example, are charter schools. The rest of the top 10 is rounded out by magnet schools. Charter school students statewide make faster achievement gains than public school students. And, Harvard researchers have found charter schools improve the performance of nearby public schools in Arizona.
But, charter schools have only absorbed a third of the increase in the public school population. Like traditional schools, charters cannot keep up with demand and alone are not enough to address Arizona’s overcrowding and quality issues. There is capacity at independent schools and we need to take advantage of it.
Arizona has moved past debating whether or not to have school choice. The debate is now over what forms choice should take.
We live in a state that spends more than $8,000 per pupil, half our 4th graders can’t read, and the state can no longer afford to pave parking lots at new schools. If we continue to follow this model, 2030 will be a lot rougher than 2006.
Expanding school choice will be part of the solution to deal with these problems. Policy-makers who have been skeptical of school choice in the past need to come to the table to help chart the course. We can create a much brighter future for our students if we work together and put their interests first.
Matthew Ladner, PhD, is the vice-president for research at the Goldwater Institute, www.goldwaterinstitute.org

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