Business model for education an unproven one - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Business model for education an unproven one

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Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:30 am | Updated: 1:57 pm, Thu Aug 25, 2011.

School in now in full swing, and the Legislature will soon be, too.

Which means we'll soon see some Republicans once again attempting to expand educational choice in our state.

As is, Arizona has one of the greatest school choice systems in our country.

Don't think so?

First, we have open enrollment in our district schools, which allows students to attend schools outside of their neighborhood school.

Then we have what the Goldwater Institute has called "the most robust" charter school system in the country. Hundreds of charter schools educate thousands of our kids.

Beyond that, we have tuition scholarships, funded by tuition tax credits, that provide tuition subsidies to families so their children can attend private schools.

And we have one of the loosest home schooling set of requirements in the country, again with thousands of Arizona children educated at home by their parents.

But for some legislators, that's not enough - they want to privatize education essentially.

Before we go there, however, shouldn't we first evaluate the current system of school choice?

After all, when charter schools were first proposed to Arizonans more than 20 years ago, the premise was this: We should apply business principles to public schools, the most important principle of which is that competition improves the product.

In this case, the "product" was students. And, the theory went, if schools had to compete for students, the schools would have to improve in order to keep those students. And thus, student achievement would improve.

That theory has continued to today, driving much of the education reform in Arizona.

But one part of the business model, the crucial one in my view, is missing.

Proof it works.

Both of our daughters work for large corporations, corporations that occasionally change their models. When those models are changed, our daughters have to institute those changes.

When they do, the corporations spend millions of dollars and hours researching just how effective those changes have been - as all businesses do.

But here in Arizona, is the business model of competition applied to our education system?

Not a single exhaustive study has been done. There's nothing but anecdotal evidence of outstanding charter schools leading the state in AIMS test scores.

Beyond that, no one will find anything that gives us - the parents and taxpayers - any clue if the money spent on charters and vouchers has actually led to better overall achievement in our state.

This omission comes even with Arizona having had pro-competition Superintendents of Public Instruction for the entire time we have had competition.

So why hasn't Arizona done that research? Where are the advocates for the business model taking the logical step of evaluating the success of that model applied to our schools?

Our current Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has touted himself as someone who bases his policies on research, proudly declaring himself a policy wonk who buries himself in the research.

Before choice advocates surface again in this year's legislative session, maybe Superintendent Huppenthal should first order a study of how successful our current system has been.

Because without that research, choice advocates base their argument on faith rather than evidence. And as any businessman will tell you, faith in something without evidence it works is a recipe for failure.

• Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

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