01/05 - Arizona is No. 1 when it comes to school choice, but proponents want even more - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

01/05 - Arizona is No. 1 when it comes to school choice, but proponents want even more

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Posted: Monday, January 5, 2004 8:39 am | Updated: 4:51 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Nationally, Arizona is viewed as the leader in providing families with school choice.

More than 67,000 students attend public charter schools. Nearly 20,000 receive tuition tax credit scholarships to attend private schools.

In 2001, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research ranked Arizona first of 50 states on its Education Freedom Index.

None of that is enough, though, for school reformers who say the time is right for Arizona to expand opportunities for children to attend the school — public or private — that best fits their needs.

"The public has become accustomed to the notion of being able to pick your own school," said Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative think tank. "The concept of this is no longer radical. In fact, it’s a given and it’s expected."

A decade after Arizona’s landmark charter law was passed, the number of students in charter schools continues to swell. In the 2002-03 school year, Arizona had 67,669 charter school students, according to the most recent statistics available from the Arizona Department of Education.

The number of students attending private schools through tuition tax credit scholarships also is growing. In 1998, $1.8 million in donations funded 326 scholarships; in 2002, $26.2 million funded 19,373 scholarships, according to a December study by the Goldwater Institute. Since the program’s first year in 1998, more than 56,861 scholarships have been awarded.

The Goldwater Institute has proposed that Arizona expand its tuition tax credit program to include businesses and corporations. Currently, Arizonans can donate up to $625 to private schools for tuition scholarships. The donations can then be claimed for tax credits on state tax returns.

Legislation that would expand the tax credit program to businesses and corporations failed last year. But Olsen said she expects lawmakers will propose it again this session.

"Ten percent of students in this state have the opportunity to attend their choice of schools," Olsen said. "It’s time all students be granted that same opportunity."

The institute also will issue studies this year proposing that Arizona create a private school voucher program for disabled students and consider the benefits of a universal voucher system for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

But critics of the school choice movement point to a number of problems with expanding such options in Arizona.

"Arizona being the leader in school choice is a dubious honor at best," said Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "We have little control or accountability except in the public schools. With the demand for accountability . . . and in times of extreme financial difficulty, to provide more opportunities for these things does not make sense to me or to our organization."

When the state Legislature convenes this month, lawmakers will grapple with a projected state deficit of $400 million to $900 million. Meanwhile, the state’s public schools maintain they have been underfunded for years.

"We’re opposed to taking public dollars and putting them in private programs until the state is adequately funding public schools," said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Arizona’s traditional public schools remain the most popular choice for families. More than 830,000 students were enrolled in school districts in 2002-03.

Rather than expanding options, Contreras said Arizona should learn from what has worked in charter schools.

"Let’s take the successes in charter schools and translate that into what’s needed for public schools to operate more efficiently and successfully: Less regulation and more money," Contreras said.

Many parents, however, say the focus should be on providing them with more — and better — choices, including private schools.

With the help of $9,000 to $10,000 in tuition tax credit scholarships, Robert and Gloria Nejbauer’s three sons are attending Tri-City Christian Academy in Tempe. Their daughter, who starts kindergarten in August, will be eligible for a scholarship when she is in first grade.

The scholarships, Robert Nejbauer said, have been invaluable. The couple struggled to send their children to Tri-City before the scholarships were available, "but it was worth every penny," he said.

"Their Stanford 9 (Achievement Test) scores show their students are getting a much better education," Nejbauer said.

Jim and Lu-Ann Armstrong also receive assistance through the tuition tax credit program to send their son, 11-year-old Alexander, to Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Tempe. If the Armstrongs were unable to send Alexander to the Catholic school, they would send him to the public Broadmor Elementary School in the Tempe Elementary School District.

Broadmor, Lu-Ann Armstrong said, is an excellent school, but she prefers that her son attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where all parents are involved in their child’s education.

"There are parents who scrape together what they can to send their children to Catholic school," she said. "When you have to sacrifice and scrape money together, you know the parents really care about the education their children are getting."

Our Lady of Mount Carmel has about 30 students in each class, but the overall school atmosphere is that of a small, tight-knit community, Armstrong said.

"You see most of the same parents every year," she said. "I have the sense that if something happened to my son, and I couldn’t be there, everyone there would be looking out for him."

While they support the tuition tax credit program, the Nejbauers and Armstrongs are uncertain about vouchers. Similar to federal Pell grants for college students, vouchers provide a designated amount of public money parents can use toward a private or public school of their choice.

"I don’t see a whole lot of difference between vouchers and tax credits," Nejbauer said. "But I really don’t know how vouchers would work."

Armstrong questions whether vouchers would lead to a change in the level of parental involvement at schools such as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

"A voucher program would be great to me, but my whole life revolves around my son," she said. "I know many public schools never see the parents because they’re not as involved."

According to the Education Commission of the States, nine states and Puerto Rico have adopted a public voucher, tax credit or tax deduction program. Maine and Vermont also have variations of voucher programs for students in communities that lack high schools.

Attempts to establish vouchers in Arizona have never succeeded. Olsen and her research staff at the Goldwater Institute maintain that the success of the tuition tax credit program and growing number of students in charters shows a high demand for school choice in Arizona — choices that should include vouchers.

"People against vouchers will argue it’s damaging public schools, but I haven’t seen the fiscal argument play out in places which have vouchers," Olsen said. "It’s about who controls a child’s education."

Defining School Choice

School districts: Governed by locally elected boards, districts operate traditional public schools. Most district schools enroll students in surrounding neighborhoods, but many districts also offer alternative schools, such as back-to-basics or Montessori schools, which any student may attend.

Charter schools: Public schools privately operated but publicly funded. Charter operators contract with the state to provide a free education to students.

Dual enrollment: Programs that allow students to enroll in colleges or universities for high school or college credit.

Open enrollment: Policy that allows students to attend any public school regardless of where they live. In Arizona, students may attend any public school within their school district or in other districts.

Tuition tax credits/scholarships:

Policy that allows Arizonans to receive a tax credit for contributions to tuition scholarship organizations, which provide private school scholarships.

Vouchers: Certificates with a designated dollar value that may be applied toward tuition or fees at private or public schools.

Sources:

Heritage Foundation and Tribune research

Pros and cons to vouchers and tuition tax credits

Proponents say vouchers and tuition tax credits:

• Give families a wide range of educational opportunities.

• Encourage competition among public, private and parochial schools.

• Allow financially struggling private schools to stay open.

• Tax credits allow parents and taxpayers to spend their money as they see fit.

Opponents say vouchers and tuition tax credits:

• Divert dollars away from publicly accountable schools to private schools, in which taxpayers lose their right to know how dollars are spent and the results they produce.

• Lower quality of public education by segregating public and private schools along socioeconomic lines.

• Force the state to cross the lines separating church and state.

• Tax credits benefit wealthy families more than low-income families. Source: Education Commission of the States

School choice in the Southwest

Some Arizona legislators and the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix would like to expand school choice options for Arizona families. This is how Arizona’s options compare to neighboring states in the Southwest:

ARIZONA

Open enrollment within school districts Open enrollment between school districts Charter schools Tuition tax credits/scholarships Home schooling

CALIFORNIA

Open enrollment within school districts Open enrollment between school districts Charter schools Tuition tax credits/scholarships Home schooling

COLORADO

Open enrollment within school districts Open enrollment between school districts Charter schools Comprehensive higher education dual enrollment programs for high school students Tuition tax credits/scholarships Home schooling

NEVADA

Charter schools Home schooling

NEW MEXICO

Charter schools Comprehensive higher education dual enrollment programs for high school students Home schooling

TEXAS

Charter schools Home schooling

UTAH

Open enrollment within school districts Open enrollment between school districts Charter schools Comprehensive higher education dual enrollment programs for high school students Home schooling

NOTE: Eligible Arizona students may enroll in the state’s community colleges for high school and postsecondary credit, but these programs were not listed as "comprehensive" dual enrollment programs in data compiled by the Heritage Foundation.

SOURCE: The Heritage Foundation and the Education Commission of the States

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