School Choice

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We kick-off National School Choice Week with a discussion about Arizona’s experience with school choice. Guests include Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona Schools Superintendent and Founder of the Education Breakthrough Network, and ASU Professor David Garcia, director of the Arizona Education Policy Initiative for the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College.

Ted Simons: This is national school choice week. We mark the occasion by taking a look at Arizona's record on school choice. In the early 1990s, Arizona established one of the strongest charter school laws in the nation, and the state's pursued a variety of market-driven alternatives to public education ever since. Here to talk about the Arizona's successes and shortcomings with school choice is Lisa Graham Keegan. She's a former state lawmaker and superintendent of schools who helped craft much of Arizona's school choice legislation. More recently, she founded the education breakthrough network, a one-stop shop for education choices everywhere. Also joining us is ASU professor David Garcia, a former assistant superintendent of public instruction. He now directs the Arizona education policy initiative for ASU's Mary Lou Fulton teacher's college. Good to see you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ted Simons: What does school choice mean in Arizona?

Lisa Graham Keegan: Well, in Arizona, first of all, school choice is simply parents choosing the school their children go to. In Arizona we have private schools the parents choose if they can afford them. We have tuition-tax credits which provide scholarships for parents who might want a private school. We have public charter schools which we talked about 120,000 students in charter schools. We have on-line schools. Sometimes those are private, sometimes they're public. It's a pretty wide spectrum of what we offer in terms of choices in Arizona.

Ted Simons: How do you see school choice as being defined in Arizona?

David Garcia: I think our parents in Arizona have about more choice than any other state in the country. In tuition-tax credits, in open enrollment and that phenomenon has been in place for at least 20 years. We've had a whole generation go through the public education system with choice and having many choices available to them. So there have been very few states that have pushed school choice like Arizona.

Ted Simons:With that in mind, is school choice working? Are kids being educated better now than they were then?

David Garcia: The interesting paradox of school choice is school choice is for individual parents an opportunity to choose the best school for their child. I'm taking advantage of school choice. My daughter does not go to the neighborhood school. She goes to another school I've chosen. The paradox is that always doesn't lead to overall achievement and gains for the entire system. It isn't that parents choose individual schools that the entire system will benefit as a result of those individual choices.

Ted Simons: How do you work that dynamic?

Lisa Graham Keegan: Because I think it's so small as a result of public education. That over time what is happening, the longer we do this, the better choice the choice schools get and we attract the people who do great things break through. In Arizona, the top 15 High Schools, the significant percentage of those, maybe ten are probably charter schools. That's an interesting phenomenon, High Schools we struggle with in Arizona. I think David is absolutely right. We don't have data yet that says, look, a choice system, all of the kids in that system are doing better than the kid in the assigned system. That's not what you want to look at. You want to look at who is getting better faster. What are parents choosing. This year in Arizona we grew by 1%. District enrollment was down, choice schools are up. I think that crossover is indicative of the fact that choice is probably where we're headed in the future. More and more parents are going to start to make this choice. We're going to quit kind of assigning kids to schools and choice is sort of going to become the wave of the future.

David Garcia: I think in Arizona we have assigned schools. I'm not sure parents look at assigned schools. They look at all schools. That's very common in Arizona. With the admin of choice, we look at parents as wise chosers, repeat customers. Because of our failing schools in Arizona, 86% of parents of students reenroll. In excelling schools, it's only 91. There's only a 5% difference. Something that happens that I'm not sure we're appreciating in the school choice debate, once parents choose a school, they're not ready to move again. They want that school to work. They do something that no other consumer does in a market, they stay and help the school improve. A good example is no child left behind made school principals announce to their parents that the school was failing and they could go anywhere in the district on the district's dime. Only 3.8% of eligible parents took advantage of it. Most of them turned and tried to improve the school.

Lisa Graham Keegan: A bunch of reasons for that I would argue, David. The schools were really not forthcoming with telling parents, not only in Arizona but across the country. A lot of what happened there, because I addressed this in Los Angeles, the school districts weren't giving the parents the information to use the opportunity to go to another school. I think to sort of set this up as a dichotomy is a false one. We're emerging in the way we provide education to our kids. On-line learning is making a huge difference. One of the best schools in Arizona called carpe diem, it's a very different delivery, hugely performing out in Yuma, really fun to see. You have the traditional schools, like the basis charter school, named the best school in the country. It looks like a classroom you or I would remember, I would remember. I'm older. It really hasn't changed that much, just a fabulous school. All of these different models, they're the best they can be within their own models. It isn't a matter of looking for the best thing. We're looking for a lot of models that can serve a lot of parents and we give them the information about what is available.

Ted Simons: For those who are waiting for the rising tide to lift all boats, you're saying it may not necessarily be the best way to measure this.

Lisa Graham Keegan: No, I don't think it is.

Ted Simons: Some folks were looking for that and some folks thought that was promised originally. Talk to us about that.

Lisa Graham Keegan: That's true. For sure if everyone around you is doing a great job and your reputation is you're not doing a very good job and that reputation can only come if we provide information how kids are doing like assessments, once that gets out there, the school that is not doing a great job does better. That's sort of a competitive environment. That we know that is true. Yes, that was promised. But the point should not be, we've got this larger system and what we want to do is we just want to use these sort of schools as though they're marginal or peripheral or unimportant. We're just trying to make this thing in the middle better. No, everything is important. There's a child in every school.

Ted Simons: How do you see that, the lifting of all boats, rising tide?

David Garcia: That hasn't turned out to be. In the best cases the folks that have looked at this, the gains have been modest. It hasn't been the kind of radical improvements people promised. But then again, the comparisons that were made off were made off of product goods, things like mail service, stuff that is easier to pick and fix. Education is much more complex. The choices of an education are much more complex. Like I mentioned, interestingly, once people choose a school, they get invested in that school like no other business. It's not like if a product isn't working for me, I turn to the company and say let's improve it. What we find, once the parents choose, they want it to work. A good example, a student of mine told me the principal had to tell the parents the school is failing. They didn't leave. They said, what do we do? We need a more sophisticated choice of parents in the environment.

Lisa Graham Keegan: We have 20,000 parents that would like to be in the scholarship program in Arizona. We have a significant, 55% of the charter schools responded to a survey that said yeah, we have a waiting list that parents would like to get in that school. So yes, parents would love for the school they're in to be great. They would also love to be in a great school and lots of them are sitting on active waiting lists. Arizona has all of that going. I think what is important is, when a school really breaks through, I mean, I don't want this conversation to lead people to believe that choice schools are schools that are great for kids, you kind of get a marginal improvement. Phoenix collegiate academy where we kicked off national school choice this week, students and teachers right in the middle of the school district and they about doubled those kids scores. When a school is getting it absolutely right, the difference in the child's life is absolutely enormous.

Ted Simons: How do you get that right and make a difference for more kids? People will listen to this conversation and they'll say, all I hear is negative information about Arizona kids. It's ranked 40th something if not 50th. We have 20 years of this now, what is going on?

David Garcia: Public school --there's a High School in Tempe, desert vista whose students routinely passing S.A.T.s. It doesn't mean that you are going to get it right in choice schools. One of the things you need to look at here, what we're asking some of our charters to do is different from the public school systems. In what respects, we have a bigger standards movement that I think sometimes thwarts innovation with the ideas the charter schools would be more innovative. They haven't been. I would argue we may not have given them the chance to be innovative. If you look at why parents choose charter schools, the number one reason is class size and school size. Yet we're not learning from that. We continue to build traditional public High Schools that are much bigger than they should be. Most parents choose schools because they want to be in front of teachers and they want the closed environment.

Lisa Graham Keegan: The great thing is we're learning better things of innovative school choice.

Ted Simons: That's where we'll stop the conversation. Good stuff. Thanks for joining us.

Lisa Graham Keegan:former Arizona Schools Superintendent and Founder of the Education Breakthrough Network;David Garcia:director of the Arizona Education Policy Initiative for the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher's College;

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