Arizona’s bank of justice is not bankrupt

Americans of a certain age (and those who have studied history) will recall the ugly time of southern governors threatening to stand at the schoolhouse door with a baseball bat to maintain “segregation forever.” I’ve got some more happy maps for Arizonans and can report that Arizona schools have made progress on the opportunity front to go along with the nation’s leading academic gains.

Why has Arizona been leading the nation in academic gains? It is always best to employ caution in drawing conclusions between policy and outcomes, but there are some elephants in the Arizona K-12 room that make our state almost unique. A huge one is that Arizona looks positively nothing like this school district map of Ohio from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. This map colors school districts according to whether they allow open enrollment transfers from students in other districts.

So, there’s a very ugly truth in this map: every urban center in Ohio is surrounded by districts who chose not to give urban students the opportunity to attend their schools. Please feel free to forward this to your misguided friends and acquaintances when they insist that “school districts take everyone” with an overabundance of confidence. School districts have a legal obligation to educate every child who can afford to live in their attendance zone, which is not in any way shape or form the same thing as “everyone.” Segregation by income and race underlies housing patterns, and thus zip code assignment patterns in district schools. Open enrollment can mitigate this, when practiced. Ohio is alas far from an outlier.

Unfortunately I lack the fancy graphics skills of my friends at the Fordham Institute, but luckily, I don’t need them to reproduce their school district map in Arizona. Here is a school district map of Arizona and once again school districts choosing not to participate in open enrollment are colored dark blue:

What’s that- you can’t see the blue? Don’t worry it’s because (delightfully) there is no blue to speak of in Arizona because almost all districts participate in open enrollment. The above map is a very slight exaggeration on my part as I am told that there are a few remote rural districts that do not participate, but it is Arizona rather than Ohio that is the national outlier here. Would you like to see Arizona Nation’s Report Card gains compared to those in Ohio? I thought you might:

Ohio also does not stand out in terms of academic trends- the country has been flat since 2009. The correct question to ask therefore is not “what’s the matter with Ohio” but rather “what is going right in Arizona?” Arizona for instance has the highest 8th grade math scores for Black students in the country, and some of the largest over time gains. Ohio not so much.

In my opinion a key to Arizona’s success lies in yet another colored map this one from the Brookings Institution showing the percentage of students by state with access to a charter school in their zip code:

Arizona not only has the highest percentage of students with a charter school operating in their zip code in the nation, it is two and a half times higher than Ohio’s. Ohio has choice options, but they are overwhelmingly clustered in urban areas. Arizona’s choice options meanwhile are inclusive and diverse across community types. If you want to help urban students, yes you give them access to charter and private schools, but you (crucially) also want to create opportunities for them to attend other district schools.

In Ohio the suburban districts don’t want urban kids. Arizona’s healthy system of competition meanwhile has opened opportunity. It wasn’t that long ago that an out of district student could not attend a Scottsdale Unified school without paying tuition. Today 4,000 out of district kids attend Scottsdale Unified free of charge to their families with state dollars following the child.

Thousands of out of district children attending Scottsdale Unified did not happen through court orders or mandated busing but rather organically through families and districts pursuing their own interests and opportunities-in other words through freedom. Arizona’s policies show respect for pluralism and an esteem for family autonomy. Through this bottom-up process, we’ve developed the strongest academic outcomes in state history, and we’ve lowered the drawbridge over ugly suburban moats. There is more to do to expand opportunity and address equity issues. Things here are not perfect or even close to perfect, but they are enormously better. If we are wise the best is yet to come in Arizona. If we are foolish, we have a great deal to lose- especially those starting with the least.

Opportunity is a value we commonly treasure as Americans, transcending mere partisan differences, which are petty by comparison. In the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity for this nation..When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”

We’ve got miles to go, but the miles we have been give me hope and even confidence that we will in fact arrive.

Matthew Ladner

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