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School choice should be an everyday mission

Near the spot where he took the oath of office last year, Gov. Doug Ducey celebrated National School Choice Week with students and their families from across Arizona. Organizing the event are the same groups that, over the past decade and before, disagreed over issues such as school funding and academic standards and in some instances even sued Arizona over how to provide a quality education for every child.

For a day though, public charter school leaders, private school scholarship organizations, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona School Boards Association, to name a few, set aside their differences. The unifying issue is the need for every student, no matter their skin color or ZIP code, to have the chance to succeed.

jonathan-butcher

Jonathan Butcher

From improved high school graduation rates to higher future earnings, the different learning options we celebrate during National School Choice week (Jan. 24-30) are giving students around the country a chance at the American Dream.

The children succeeding using these options have names. In Arizona, Elias Hines, Jordan Visser, and Nathan Howard. In Florida, Faith Kleffel. In Nevada, Laila Norman. In Tennesse, Marshall Shanks. And on and on.

Each of these students has a unique story, with one important feature in common: They all have potential. To reach their potential, they needed a different learning experience than the classroom to which the government assigned them.

These students have the chance at the American Dream today because Arizona parents, advocates, and lawmakers—and those around the U.S.—have worked for decades to create new learning opportunities for students of all types. School board members and charter and private school leaders share the stage at our state capitol because we cannot be satisfied to let any child fall through the cracks.

These choices have made Arizona look different than it did just a decade ago. One hundred more charter schools are operating in Arizona than in 2006. By 2014, 40 percent of Arizona charter schools earned an “A” on the state report card system.

But that’s just the beginning. Arizona parents can choose from any public school in the state, and they have much to choose from. The Chandler and Deer Valley School Districts are offering Mandarin as a foreign language. Phoenix Union is teaching students how to write computer code.

In 2006, Arizona businesses contributed $7 million to help low-income students—students from families that could not afford to choose a private school for their child, even if their child would succeed there—attend a private school. In 2015, in just 3 business days, corporations gave $52 million, more than 7 times the figure raised 10 years ago, to be used for private school scholarships for disadvantaged students.

Most significantly, in the past decade Arizona became the nation’s leader in designing the future of learning by creating the nation’s first education savings accounts. With an account, the state deposits public funds in a private bank account that parents use to purchase K-12 and postsecondary educational products and services for their child. Lawmakers in four other states have used Arizona’s ideas to bring these accounts to families in their state.

For the next 10 years, the same lawmakers and advocates sharing the National School Choice Week stage today have the responsibility to make sure students have access to these options.

It’s a tall order. To put things in perspective, 2,400 students are using education savings accounts in Arizona, while district schools enroll nearly 1 million children. That means just 0.2 percent of Arizona public school students are using an education savings account. The accounts make up just 0.4 percent of the state’s entire education budget.

Meanwhile, 1.2 percent of students are using private school scholarships funded by corporate contributions (as a fraction of the public school total, another 2.5 percent use scholarships provided by individual donations).

In order to help more students succeed, lawmakers shouldn’t stop at recognizing parental choices in education for just one week each year. It should be the mission of lawmakers, parents, and advocates every day.

– Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute.

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