When it’s working for students, let it work

Guest Opinion//April 3, 2023

When it’s working for students, let it work

Guest Opinion//April 3, 2023


Arizona’s education story over the past three decades arose from a focus on some large-scale policy changes whose existence allowed educators to bring our public system of schooling to the top of the nation in academic achievement gains. With much left to do, we cannot reverse the policies that led to this progress for students.

Arizona’s academic gains were partially reversed when the pandemic led too many students to lose out on instruction and the joys of being together in person with friends and trusted teachers. Clearly, this plays a fundamentally important role in academic success, and as a nation, we went against our better instincts.

Lisa Graham Keegan

The current moment demands that we honestly assess the policies and subsequent actions that led to better outcomes for students. The correct decisions now are urgently needed.

While academic advantages begin in the home and according to choices parents either can or cannot make on behalf of their children, a successful education happens at the individual school, in interactions between teachers and students. Period. No policies can create those schooling successes – policies either enable them or prevent them.

Arizona’s most successful policies have empowered parents and school leaders by doing a few key things: First, our student funding formula is applied statewide, is based on individual student needs, and moves with the student. The state has repeatedly sought to make sure that equitable and dedicated funds follow students ALL THE WAY into the school or learning environment that their family chooses.

Perhaps most critically and for the past 30 years, we have sought to allow families to choose from among more and more schools that can best fit their child’s needs at no personal cost; and we have encouraged teachers and other education leaders to create new schooling options for families that can be part of a vast array of options. We added free open enrollment access to public district schools and what is now a high performing sector and public charter schools in the 90’s and have since added publicly supported access to private schools via Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. This ability to choose a school directly, and the companion ability of educators to start and run their own schools or systems of schools has transformed Arizona’s education landscape and led to the achievement gains of the past two decades.

Data tells us that when parents move their child from school to school with an intention to find a better academic or social fit, achievement improves. This matters enormously. Schools and teachers are not widgets that can be blindly assigned to students without consideration of fit. More essentially, no children should be assigned to schools without a proven ability to maximize student potential. A parent’s judgment as to the best school fit is a key driver of academic improvement in the state.

The most important catalyst for achievement gains have been our schools themselves. The power of parents to choose a school can’t result in achievement gains without the ability of school leaders to offer more and better high-quality schooling options that will prove to be a strong fit for their students. Through its policies, the state will either encourage the improvement of schools, encourage and support the development of new, high-quality schools, or provide broader access to already existing excellent schools. Adversely, the state can thwart these powerful tools for best school fit and academic gain.

A focus on achievement gains was the driving force behind the creation of Results-based Funding in 2016, a policy that rapidly succeeded in making achievement gains in the core subjects an important and rewarded goal. A key feature of Results-based Funding from inception has been to double the reward amounts to schools in traditionally lower-income communities. The work here is critical, and the investment has helped these highly successful educators expand to serve even more of the students trying to get into their schools.

These are urgent times. The pandemic cost our students dearly, moving the state from the fastest academic achieving state in the country to one dealing with academic losses in nearly every school. This is no time to abandon fact-based, proven approaches to education policy. Choice of schools is essential and an expected right of families; innovation in schooling is the rightful prerogative of educators that has driven improvement in our state for decades; and rewarding schools that succeed for their students are all powerful and proven.

Where we should look for policy change is in ways to strengthen our education investment across the state. One of the best ways would be to maximize the excess school facility space across the state that has been created by all this student movement and local declines in enrollment. The Common Sense Institute recently reported that this excess space across the state is valued at $3.3 billion dollars. Failing to manage this situation directly impacts our ability to fund our students in the classrooms they choose.

At a time of urgent need for educational advancement, Arizona’s powerful student-based policies empower families and educators to take actions that create better futures for our children and for that state. We should follow their lead.

Lisa Graham Keegan is Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors at the Common Sense Institute Arizona and a former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction.