Proponents of school choice say traditional public schools are failing our children and choice is the answer. But, open enrollment has offered school choice in Arizona since 1994 and Arizona has more charter schools than any state in the nation. Yet, Arizona is still 46th in the U.S. in education performance. The problem isn’t parents don’t have choices. The problem is our legislature is not focusing resources to serve the majority of our students – traditional public education. Instead, they play a shell game to give the illusion of responsible legislation regarding education.
Take our state program of education tax credits. The Individual Tax Credit program favors private schools with two tax credits allowed for donations to school tuition organizations for private schools totaling a maximum of $2,062 (for married filing jointly in 2013) versus $400 for traditional public schools. The Corporate Income Tax Credit is another private school boon allowing Arizona corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), which give scholarships to private schools.
Arizona also has Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Originally created for parents of disabled children, as of 2013-2014, the option will extend to: students attending a school with a D-F letter grade, children of active duty military, and wards of the juvenile court. ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited into an education savings account administered by the Arizona Department of Education and the State Treasurer.
These special programs redistribute state revenue and help hide the truth that Arizona leads the nation in per public spending cuts since 2008 ($3 billion). Although proponents say school choice saves the state money, this is true only if students who started out in public schools, end up in private schools. Unfortunately, many tuition scholarships funded by the tax credits have gone to students who would have attended private schools anyway, representing a financial loss for the state.
But don’t charter schools perform better? Yes, Tucson’s Basis High School was ranked 6th in the U.S. in 2012 by U.S. News and World report. But, University High School of Tucson Unified School District, was ranked even higher at 4th in the U.S. In fact, six of the top 10 high schools in Arizona and the top five high schools in the nation are traditional public schools. There are pockets of excellence in both charter schools and traditional public schools, but by and large, they have no significant performance advantage over traditional public schools.
Charter schools and private schools serve a purpose. But, they are not designed to serve the needs for the majority of our children. Traditional public schools are the parental choice for almost nine out of 10 families in Arizona and these schools continue to serve these children well, despite a lack of adequate funding and support. Just imagine what our schools could be if our efforts were properly focused and funded?