Matthew Simon: School choice should be for all students

Matthew Simon stands beside photos of his former students in Arkansas. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Matthew Simon stands beside photos of his former students in Arkansas. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Matthew Simon’s path to his current position as the Goldwater Institute’s new director of education policy may be surprising.

After graduating from Arizona State University, he joined Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that sends teachers into low-income areas, and he taught in the Earle School District in rural Arkansas. He said the organization is often pegged as “a bunch of liberal, young kids,” but it made him more steadfast in his beliefs in school choice and liberty.

Cap Times Q&ADid you take anything from that particular experience that you would pass on to Arizona teachers?

I didn’t have a projector in my room. I didn’t even have a computer for a teacher in my room. I had textbooks that were ten years old. And I think we sometimes let those limitations stop us from doing what we need to do. There are a million ways to teach a lesson, and as long as you have high expectations for your students and that comes out in your lesson and you’re moving forward, those things don’t stop you.

Why didn’t you keep teaching?

Deciding whether or not to stay in the classroom was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. It’s not one that’s made lightly for anybody. I loved my school and my community, but the school culture and the administration and the leadership just wasn’t something I wanted to continue with. … And I think that’s something we lose sight of. All of my friends are still teaching, and they’re teaching in schools that serve low-income students and students where an achievement gap is present, but there’s a great leader. And if there had been a great leader at my school, maybe that decision might have been different for me.

Now that you’re here in this position, what are your priorities going to be?

As has been the long-standing tradition, promoting, expanding and protecting school choice and parents’ rights to choose the best education for their children, hands down, is pivotal. I think it’s something that is ingrained in our culture in Arizona and it’s something we’ve led on.

Connected with all that is continuing to look at other education policies, like the school finance system. Making sure students, regardless of which educational choice they make, are all receiving the same financing. … It’s important when we look at school districts, which are essentially taxing jurisdictions, that we also look at taxpayer equity.

There’s been a butting of heads with folks like yourself and advocates of a more traditional public school model. That’s manifested into things like a mass “sick-out” that led to the closure of nine schools in the West Valley one Wednesday. What do you think of those actions?

When I think about what happened at Pendergast Elementary School District, I think about my students. The fact that a choice was made for students just hasn’t been covered at all by the media. …I know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it. I would love to see dollars that are flowing through the public education system get further into the classroom and into teachers’ pockets.

What’s concerning for me… is losing sight of the students who are supposed to be at the center of it. We talk about dollars or institutions or types of educational models, but we forget that students are at the heart of it. I don’t care where a student goes. I want them to have the best opportunities. I think about all the kids I taught – would I prevent them (from making a choice), just so they had to be at Earle (School District in Arkansas) to receive an education? No. I’m picturing all of their faces right now, and I want them to go wherever works best for them to succeed at the highest level.

When nine schools are closed… students were the ones hurt that day.

Do you think teachers have good reason to be frustrated?

I think they should be frustrated, but I don’t think they should be frustrated at the Arizona Legislature and policymakers. We have a very decentralized education system where locally elected school boards and independent charter schools make finance decisions. … When we talk about holding elected officials accountable, there are over 240 boards of elected officials that don’t tend to be held as accountable as other elected officials even though they manage those billions of dollars.

The state Supreme Court is allowing Proposition 305 to go to the November ballot. Was that the right decision?

I’m not an attorney, so I won’t opine on the legal questions. But it was disappointing, and I think that was because of the decision on when a law went into effect and who had standing. The actual merits of the case weren’t actually discussed, and that’s disappointing. And, obviously, I’m disappointed because I view what the Legislature did very positively. When I think about all the kids who don’t have an opportunity, another choice to get themselves out of a bad situation or when we talk about climbing out of poverty or inequality–that opportunity was taken away from them.

What would you like to see legislators do with that legislation now? Would you be comfortable with compromising on a replacement bill?

I would love to see the Legislature act to make sure students have an opportunity. If the SOS Arizona folks could come to the ground on making sure more kids have access to opportunities, then that would be extremely surprising and satisfying. But I hope there would be a common ground where students still got the opportunity to exercise a choice.

What about your own educational background? District school? Private? Charter?

I was born and raised in Tucson, Marana Unified School District. Myself, my brother, my ten cousins all went through the same school district. We were lucky to have such amazing schools in our neighborhood, which not every kid has. … Not everybody gets from it what I did. That’s why I want more choices, so everybody, regardless of where they live, can do that.