School choice in Arizona has long been celebrated as a solution to many of the “problems” that are reportedly occurring in Arizona’s public school system. Providing parents with choice and using competition have been celebrated as a way to ensure the educational level of all students in the state continues to rise. What if after 25 years of this social experiment the results reveal an alarming truth about the composition of our schools. Would it not be the responsibility of our politicians to correct this issue or at least help schools impacted by this issue?
The idea was that using a business model, successful schools would force other schools to implement change in the way they operate in order to remain competitive. These schools of choice were freed of regulatory oversight and provided increased funding, such as results-based funding. Given
their “reported” success this would provide an incentive for struggling schools to change. Unfortunately, what has been ignored by too many people is the damage this movement has done to the public education system. The ugly truth is that the school choice movement has resulted in segregation in our K-12 schools today that is worse than the 1950s and 1960s.
This segregation is occurring on three levels: ethnic, socioeconomic and special education. When looking at the composition of those schools of choice that are reported to be the “best in our state or country”, their student populations do not mirror the composition of our state in terms of ethnic, socioeconomic or special education. This is especially troubling for public policy that has repeatedly utilized special education students and students of poverty as the students that would benefit the most from school choice.
For example, at the state level, special education students account for 13 percent of the overall student population. However, the top rated schools of choice have special education populations that are 5 percent or below of the total student population in their schools. Meanwhile, many traditional public school districts have special education populations that exceed twenty 20 percent of their student population.
Given the impact of school choice, the discussion in this legislative session on the cost of educating students is critical. Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal to provide additional funding based on poverty and Sen. Sylvia Allen’s bill, SB1060, which would increase the amount of funding schools get to educate special education students are encouraging. The ability of the legislature to understand the unique needs of the different populations of students found in our public schools is important. Understanding the impact of special education and poverty on the education of students is critical when determining educational funding. I believe there needs to be more debate on the use of test scores to determine the success of programs, but the recognition that these factors drive up the cost of educating students is a critical first step.
The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, was the start of creating a system in which students had an opportunity at a quality education. IDEA legislation at the federal level in the late 1960s opened up opportunities for our special education students. These changes made our country stronger and provided more opportunities for all students to achieve the American Dream. It is a shame that in the name of “school choice” public schools in Arizona have reversed decades worth of equality. For a state that has over a $1 billion in our rainy day fund and over $700 million in excess revenues, additional funding for schools based on poverty and special education, just like results-based funding, is critical. This additional funding will not reverse the troubling trend of segregation in our schools; however, it will provide hope and help to traditional public schools affected by this unfortunate trend.
Dr. Gregory Wyman is the Superintendent for the J. O. Combs Unified School District.