Arizona’s School Choice Policy

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ASU professor David Garcia, director of the Arizona Education Policy Initiative for ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, comments on his research on the effectiveness of Arizona’s school choice policies.

Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Arizona has long been a leader in school choice. Families have many educational options and Arizona has more charter schools than any state except for California. Still, the vast majority of Arizona families keep their kids in traditional public schools and that, according to ASU professor David Garcia, indicates school choice doesn't work the same as the free Mark. He's been researching the issue and yesterday shared some of his findings at the Arizona school board association's annual meeting. Here to talk more about his research is David Garcia, director of the education policy initiative for ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

David Garcia: Thank you, appreciate the invitation.
Ted Simons: So Arizona is what, too gung ho you think on school choice?
David Garcia: When I started this question I was looking at a discrepancy. We are one of top states in choice and toward the bottom in education outcomes. I was looking at that question. What I realized is in realty this isn't really an issue choice policy; it's really an issue of market policies in Arizona. What we have been following in Arizona is market principles, this idea if you give parents the ability to vote with their feet and they will do so in a rational manner like a parent consumer would that that rising tide is going to lift all boats. That part of education policy simply hasn't played out in the last 20 years.

Ted Simons: Hasn't played out because parents are not rational consumers?

David Garcia: You know, not from a market perspective. You've got to remember that, right? So from a market perspective, rational consumers, when they receive a bad product, what they are supposed to do? Let's say a bad cup of coffee, is to go to a better coffee shop. And as a result what happens is that the coffee shop they left either gets better or closes down. That same analogy is used with schools all the time. The problem is when parents are faced with a declining school, they do something completely unheard of. Most of them stay. We have been finding this for really a long time with regard to research and they stay for a couple reasons. One, high transaction costs to leaving. It costs a lot to go somewhere else. And second, they are not consumers in the traditional sense. Parents and schools are more like members in communities than consumers in businesses. If you look at how members and communities act and how they behave it looks a lot like how parents behave in public schools. Interestingly your more committed members in communities are the last to leave. That is completely irrational and they are the last to leave because they are the most invested in the idea of a community.

Ted Simons: Are you saying, are you finding that parents don't choose schools due to test scores; due to A, B, C, D grades; due to these sorts of things? Obviously some do, but most don't?

David Garcia: We have almost 30 years on how parents choose. Looking at the factors they choose from, what parents choose with regard to schools first and foremost are issues such as safety, student well-being, fit with regard to academics and specialized curriculum and the student body composition. Who else is in the schools. Down the list quite a ways are formal sources of information - like state report cards, like state test scores. And of all of those, the biggest source of information that parents use is actually other parents.

David Garcia: Other parents. Yeah, interesting! But there are waiting lists to get into charter schools and other school options. Are there not?

David Garcia: there are.

Ted Simons: So obviously some parents, many parents are using choice.

David Garcia: And it works very well for those parents. That's where choice is really exciting. When folks see schools of choice in traditional public schools as well as charter schools, by the way, that isn't the distinction. What choice allows is like minded parents with like-minded students to get into schools with like-minded teachers and administrators around a common core academic mission. That is a very powerful aspect of choice. But, what we expect in Arizona is because there's a school of choice that other schools, the rising tide, remember, are going to get better. That part of education policy really hasn't panned out. That's the reason why despite so much expansive choice policies in Arizona, achievement scores have not risen at the same time.

Ted Simons: So with that in mind, should the state not be so gunning ho on school choice because if that's the case, a lot of kids who are doing really well because they have gone to a school of their parents' choice, will they start being left behind or not achieving as much as they could?

David Garcia: I think the issue is not that we shouldn't be gung ho about school choice. I think we should stop thinking about parents as consumers and relying on them leaving their schools behind as the primary driver for education reform. That I think is where we have gone gung ho. Parents aren't the rational consumers you might think in a private sector.

Ted Simons: Why not encourage parents to be better consumers? To pass those emotional issues and look at the fact Junior could be going to this school and doing a heck lot or being exposed to a lot better than what he's being exposed to now?

David Garcia: Couple of things. Usually when you make this argument, supposed the market isn't working, it can be done more efficiently. Even if you had more information available, let's say -- we did that, by the way. We went from excelling schools to now label grades so it was more transparent to parents. Even though we made that change parents will continue to make choices about schools on things other than that label grade. There pay attention to the schools' well-being, safety, how their student fits in that school and to who else is attending; regardless of the labels that we add to the schools. I'll give you an example. Under ‘No Child Left Behind', some 65,000 students in 2005-2006 were told they could go someplace else. The principal got in front of them and said you can exit. They go in front of them, said you can go to another school. 0.2% according to this Departmnet of Educations' own report actually got up and took advantage of that opportunity and left.

Ted Simons: Yeah,yeah. So are you saying that we shouldn't necessarily limit choice because there are parents who simply choose not to choose, you're saying what, we need to elevate some of the failing schools because there are parents who will not leave?

David Garcia: I think that what we need to recognize is that parents are members in communities and that their first inclination is not to leave, their first is to stay and help. We can think about public policies that help parents help their schools. Right now our thought is if you don't like it where you're at, get up and go someplace else. That's not the first inclination that you see. The other thing to think about is to realize there are choosers everywhere. My daughters go to a public school. Analogy that's often put to people in public schools is that they are somehow left behind. There are as many choosers, if not more choosers, in traditional public schools than other options outside of traditional public school system.

Ted Simons: So when you spoke to the Arizona School Board Association at the annual meeting; gave the some of your ideas and showed your research and study results, what kind of response did you get?

David Garcia: Most folks said as a parent that's exactly the reason why I chose their school, and many of them said things like we have our label, whatever that label is, excelling, we lose more students from that school to another specialized school. A school with a special, unique mission. I think the reason they do is because parents are paying more attention to the academic mission of the school and the fit for the student than the label that gets attached to that school. So my message to the School Board Association was think about how you're creating unique, innovative options for parents. That fit is what works best, but it doesn't mean even though you have one that this rising tide is going to improve public education in general.

Ted Simons: Last question, in a world of limited resources and goodness knows we're in that world now, as far as education is concerned. Does it make sense to continue to push for choice, or do you redirect those limited resources in another direction?

David Garcia: I think it makes sense to continue to have choice available, choice is an important part of education policy. We need to find another direction to think about because choice alone, the policy we have been following the last 20 years, isn't enough to push us where we need to go.

Ted Simons: Can you work on public policy in that direction when so many parents are making emotional decisions?

David Garcia: This is where the idea of applying market strategy to education falls in place - that's the Achilles heel in general. That those emotional decisions are actually very rational from a family perspective. The grade that your school has is less important than your student fitting well and looking, feeling like they do well in that school. Most parents understand that and know that.

Ted Simons: Very interesting stuff. Good to have you. Thanks for joining us.

David Garcia: Thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

David Garcia:Director, Arizona Education Policy Initiative for ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College;

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