If options for school choice equaled educational quality, Arizona’s students would be at the top of the class. Between open enrollment, charter schools, Arizona’s private school tax credits and vouchers, and homeschooling, Arizona offers families more choices than any other state in the nation. Yet we remain in the middle of the pack academically, making advances in student achievement, but not at a pace to match the zeal with which our legislators have pushed choice as a solution to improving educational outcomes. To make real progress, we need to return our focus, with laser-like intensity, to where our students are — not where legislators and pundits think they ought to be.
Here’s what we’ve learned in the nearly 20 years that “choice” has dominated the education policy conversation in Arizona.
• Research tells us that there is very little difference in academic outcomes between charter schools — the most high-profile choice option nationally and in Arizona — and traditional public schools.
• Vouchers and workarounds for promoting enrollment in private schools take “the choice” from parents — where one would assume it was intended to be — and put it in the hands of private schools, who can decide whether or not a student will be accepted.
• Most significantly, the families of nearly nine out of 10 Arizona students still choose neighborhood public schools as the best place for their children to be educated.
There’s no need to abandon charter schools. They are open to all Arizona students and provide legitimate educational options that are right for some students and preferred by some parents. But we need to shift the conversation in Arizona from a dogged pursuit of “choice” — preferred by some — to “performance” — a necessity for all. This requires renewed commitment to neighborhood public schools — the schools attended by the vast majority of Arizona’s children.
Our neighborhood public schools must be the most powerful and essential training ground for our state’s future engineers, innovators, teachers, artists and community and business leaders. If we fail to make them our top priority, we’ve chosen a path that will leave too many children behind and our state’s future uncertain.
Dr. Timothy Ogle is executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, a private, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting community volunteer governance of public education and continuous improvement of student success by providing leadership and assistance to school district governing boards statewide. He serves on the board of directors of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition. Prior to joining ASBA in February 2012, Ogle enjoyed a successful 30-year career in public education, most recently as superintendent of schools in one of Indiana’s highest achieving and fastest growing school districts. He has also served as curriculum director, principal and teacher. Ogle holds a B.S. in education and an M.S. in school administration from Indiana University, an Ed.S. from Ball State University and a Ph.D. in school administration from Indiana State University.