Does mainstream public education in Arizona have a viable future under the current governor and the Republican majority at the State House?
And if the answer is “No” – as some are beginning to believe – does education in general and even Arizona as a state have much of a future?
And is it time for the education grassroots – teachers and parents with children in mainstream public schools – to mobilize politically before it is too late?
We ask those questions not for strategic reasons, such as leveraging more funds for schools or building momentum behind the Common Core curriculum. Those are goals worth achieving, but they are only part of what should be a larger debate over individual school choice vs. the shared responsibility of a community to educate all of its children.
RIGGED IN FAVOR OF CHOICE
So far, though, there has been little debate because Republicans have rigged the school finance and accountability game so much that the outcome in favor of choice – that is, charter and private schools -- is nearly predetermined. From classroom spending quotas to hiring only certified teachers, providing buses and making room for any local child who walks through the door, the exclusive mandates on mainstream public schools make it nearly certain they will have higher costs and more varied outcomes than charters and privates.
Yet Gov. Ducey and legislative Republicans want equal outcomes while not holding the charters and privates accountable to the same standards or sending more funds to high-need schools. One Senate panel even wants to take money away from the mainstream publics for not spending more money in the classroom – after the Legislature itself cut school subsidies during the recession and forced teacher layoffs, thus reducing classroom spending.
To rub salt in the wound, charters and private schools are not included in the bill, and there is no counterproposal to raise the proportion of classroom spending by simply giving schools more funds for teachers. With Arizona wallowing among the bottom five states in the nation on spending per pupil, it’s not as if such a move would label the Republicans as spendthrifts.
WHICH SCHOOLS REALLY BEST?
Or take another example: the proposal by Ducey to make sure all students have access to the “best” schools, no matter which type, by providing more state funds for their expansion. To date, high test scores have made up the bulk of Arizona’s school rating system, and the college prep charter schools have come out on top. But it doesn’t take a math major to see that withdrawing top-scoring students from mainstream publics and concentrating them in charters will lower the median scores of the former. We challenge Ducey to come up with a definition of “best” that measures improvement and a value-added education, not how many high-scoring students enroll in a charter school.
Then there is Ducey’s objection to Common Core based on a conspiracy theory that, against all evidence, says it was the federal government that developed and imposed the new, more rigorous curriculum. In fact, Arizona’s former school superintendent along with educators from this state and others developed Common Core. The business community certainly sees the value in it, but a common curriculum doesn’t square with individual choice, so the federal government is the default bogeyman when all other arguments fail.
The game is rigged not only by blind allegiance to individual choice over community but to a tax-cutting, trickle-down theory of economics that by definition means public disinvestment when revenues fail to keep up with rising costs. Even shifting state spending, such as from prisons to schools, is off the table, so wedded are Republicans to a choice mantra that is a code word for dismantling the mainstream public schools and their communitarian ethos.
And where does all this lead public education and Arizona itself? The trend is already clear: Parental choice means academic tracking as early as the fifth grade. That might be justified in a mainstream public school, where the gifted and talented rub shoulders at lunchtime, recess and band practice with those students less well-off academically and financially. But at the charters and privates, which can cap enrollment and, at the latter, pick and choose among applicants, choice has meant a socio-demographic segregation that utterly frustrates the ideals of a democratically educated society.
And, ultimately, unbridled choice and public disinvestment will fail the private economy, too. As mainstream schools see their funds siphoned off to lower-cost charters and privates while the harder-to-educate, higher-cost students remain behind, the education gap will grow to become a skills and employability gap, too. Arizona can pay for it now by boosting mainstream school resources or pay for it later in higher police and prison costs and a lower quality of life tethered to a low-skill, low-pay economy. The education con game that is unfettered choice needs to be called out now. Here’s how to reach your state elected officials: