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A critical year for school choice

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The coming year will be a critical time for the school choice movement in Arizona and nationally.

Rapid enrollment growth over the past 20 years has demonstrated the popularity of public charter schools when parents are given an option in their children’s education. In Arizona, 180,000 students now attend one of 547 charter schools across the state. Since 2007-08, charter enrollment nationally has more than doubled and now stands at nearly 3 million.

eileen-head-shotEven more impressive: Consider that another 1 million students are on waiting lists nationwide to attend a public charter school. Clearly, these schools are meeting a critical demand of American families.

These kinds of numbers wouldn’t be possible if charter schools aren’t also performing. Of course, just as with district schools, there are schools at every end of the spectrum. But a 2015 report by Stanford University’s Center
for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that, overall, students enrolled in urban charter schools gained the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 days in reading, as compared with students attending traditional district schools.

The performance among Arizona charters has been just as impressive. For the last two years, charter students in our state outperformed the state average on the AzMERIT assessment. In fact, if Arizona charter students were separated and measured as their own state, it would rank among a handful of
the top-performing states in the entire country on the Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

None of this dissuades the charter detractors, unfortunately. Of course, they never plainly state their opposition to the simple principle that parents should have more say over their children’s education. Instead, they talk in general terms about “protecting district enrollment” (as if students themselves are property of the district school), or limiting when and where charters can operate.

Don’t be fooled.

Lately, school-choice foes have trained their fire on President-elect Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education – Betsy DeVos.

Know this: for nearly 30 years, Ms. DeVos has fought for education reform that works – putting students’ interests ahead of special interests; supporting rigorous standards that lead to higher outcomes; loosening Washington’s grip on local education policy and putting more power into the
hands of parents and families; and, expanding access to high-performing schools. She will be a champion for students and families and a powerful antidote to the education bureaucracy that too often stymies necessary improvement.

Here in Arizona, the biggest threats to students and schools are financial.
Even following statewide voters’ approval of Proposition 123 in 2016, a segment of small charter schools serving a combined 84,000 Arizona students still faces $20 million in additional state cuts in the next fiscal year. If allowed to stand, these cuts would disproportionately be borne by some of Arizona’s top-performing charters. The impact could be severe for families: school closures, classroom cuts, or reventing excellent schools from expanding to serve more students.

We understand the state’s budget constraints. So, on behalf of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, our mantra for 2017 is simple: Fund what works. With limited state resources, we ask that Governor Ducey, legislators and policymakers work to focus funding on those programs and schools getting
results for students. Together, let’s make that a resolution we keep in 2017.

Eileen Sigmund is President and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools
Association.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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