After several years of leading the nation in school choice through its proliferation of charter schools, Arizona is poised to significantly expand that choice.
Legislation creating some form of voucher program for private or religious school tuition is likely to go to Gov. Janet Napolitano soon.
This would be Arizona’s long-awaited response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision upholding vouchers as constitutional. Today, only through the more robust competition provided through expanded choice, including vouchers, can public K-12 education in Arizona be expected to permanently improve.
Opponents, led by the teachers’ unions, have fought vouchers on the unsupportable premise that they would lessen the achievement of those remaining in public schools. The governor told the Tribune’s Le Templar on Tuesday that she has seen no persuasive evidence that vouchers improve public education. Yet as we have often noted in this space, research has shown otherwise:
• Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby’s benchmark 2001 study found marked improvement in academic achievement among 100,000 students in Milwaukee public schools four years after a voucher program was implemented. She said public-school educators credited the results to "feeling the pinch" from competition.
• Another joint study the same year by Florida State University and the Manhattan Institute found that underperforming schools in Florida saw their test scores rise significantly — based on the mere idea that their students would become eligible for state-sponsored vouchers.
• The Cleveland voucher program that was the subject of the Supreme Court ruling also was shown to have stepped up achievement, not only among the predominantly poor and minority students who had moved to private and religious schools under the program, but among remaining public school pupils as well.
We therefore disagree with state Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale — a former voucher advocate who voted against the Senate bill — who said that public schools somehow would suffer under vouchers because private schools "are able to turn away students."
The above studies and many others have shown the opposite — that choice encourages everyone, educators, administrators, parents and students, to do better. Moreover, with vouchers, public schools will continue to receive the same full funding per child entering them that they currently receive. Charter schools’ per-pupil reimbursements and the vouchers themselves will continue to amount to less than what public schools receive.
Allen’s statement that private and religious schools do not adhere to the same standards as public schools ignores the fact that — unless the Legislature unwisely removes it as a high school graduation requirement — all students, even those who are educated at a private school that is state-certified, must pass the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test. And many private schools have had their own accountability systems in place long before Arizona began the AIMS program.
Some private and charter schools specialize in educating children with special needs or who are academically struggling. School choice will expand these opportunities, not shut them down.
The time for vouchers in Arizona is long overdue. As part of a state budget compromise that, as we noted in this space on Sunday, will involve much give-and-take between the governor and the legislative leadership, the bill providing for them should be signed into law.