Just over 10 years ago, I stepped into my classroom in a small rural Arkansas town as a high school life science teacher. This experience changed my life and my perceptions forever. Not only would I learn the true meaning of Southern hospitality, but I would also gain a relentless, unapologetic focus on what matters most in education – putting students first.
During a tumultuous year where students have far too often been put last, there is a beacon of optimism and hope that could have a lasting positive impact on generations of students. There are a variety of measures currently moving through the Arizona Legislature – all laser-focused on students and increasing access to quality classrooms.
Although Arizona established public school open enrollment nearly four decades ago, it is time we modernize the system to be more transparent, equitable and easily accessible. Students and parents should not have to camp outside of school buildings overnight in the hopes of being able to attend a school. We have heard and seen examples of parents having to navigate mountains of paperwork, not even being able to find the enrollment procedures online for a school, and being denied for arbitrary and discriminatory reasons like having special needs.
This open enrollment reform legislation is complemented by a bill that would upend our decades’ old and antiquated approach to transporting students. It is one thing to get enrolled in a school of your choice, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t actually get there. This legislation empowers parents to either access the means to get their children to the public school that will best serve them (or meet their needs) either through state transportation grants or allowing public schools to provide grants directly to parents to eliminate transit barriers. The bill also invests in our public schools and municipalities by appropriating $10 million to innovative leaders and mayors who want to rethink how we transport students to school.
Finally, HB2862 sponsored by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, would allow schools to break out of the over 100-year-old practice of “seat time” and design instructional models that best serve the unique needs of each student. Currently, schools are forced to conform to a rigid schedule, especially in high school, that requires students to sit in each class for a certain amount of time in order to meet audit standards and qualify for full funding, regardless if that student actually needs additional time in a class. As a former science teacher, I know this all too well. Trying to fit high-quality, rigorous and inquiry-based labs into a 45-minute class was nearly impossible. Rather than being able to have the time to invest and dive into the content and give my students a robust laboratory experience, I was forced to shortchange their experience. We are constantly talking about how we need to meet students where they are at and this legislation does that. Innovation is no longer optional, and this bill delivers the flexibility needed to serve students at the highest level.
These bills represent a new era of bold leadership and each one of these pieces of legislation is unapologetically student focused. The package makes it easier for students to attend the public school of their choice, funds innovative ways to get those students to those public schools and allows schools to change their schedule to provide an effective learning experience for every student.
Matthew Simon is vice president of Advocacy & Government Affairs at Great Leaders, Strong Schools.