Maricopa school appeal > beaches and movie stars?

Recently I visited the U-Haul company website to check on the cost to rent a 20-foot-truck to go from Phoenix to Los Angeles. Answer: $157. Then I checked the same trip but in the opposite direction–from Los Angeles to Phoenix–and the cost was almost nine and a half times higher-$1,483.

Why the difference?

You get a steep discount moving to Los Angeles because so many trucks from L.A. have piled up in Phoenix that you are doing the company a favor to drive a truck back where they are badly needed. Meanwhile, the demand for moving trucks is much higher in L.A., so they charge a great deal more.

When you compare the education statistics between Los Angeles County and Maricopa County, they make you wonder when the rest of L.A. might arrive in Arizona.

Stanford University has linked state academic results across the country and created a handy data tool to allow visual comparisons. Academic growth–student progress over time–is a key measure of school quality. Maricopa schools educate almost 67% of Arizona students, and Los Angeles County is likewise the giant of California.   

Below I compare Maricopa County (circle 1) with Los Angeles County (circle 2) in the context of academic growth rates for every county in the country. While I could display a repeated beatdown across multiple subgroups (White, Hispanic, Black students), we’ll keep things simple and simply divide students into low-income and non-low-income.

Low-income students in Maricopa County learned at a rate 12% higher than the national average. Similar students in Los Angeles County learned at a rate 5% below the national average. A similar gap appears among non-poor students in the figure below.

Middle-to-high-income Los Angeles students fell one percent below the national average in academic progress. Similar students in Maricopa County made academic gains 16% above the national average during this period. Interestingly, both groups of students (low-income and middle-to-high-income, respectively) saw a gap of the same size, a 17% advantage for Maricopa County students.

We cannot definitively say why students learn faster in the Phoenix area than in L.A. A distinguishing feature of Arizona’s K-12 system is the prevalence of charter schools and the widespread participation of districts in open enrollment. The Brookings Institution measured the percentage of students with access to a charter school during the 2014-15 school year. California came in with a nationally respectable 45.8%. Arizona led the nation with 84%.

A study of enrollment patterns in Maricopa County districts demonstrates a very dynamic system of schooling. Open-enrollment students, defined as district students attending a district school other than the school assigned by their zip code, outnumbered charter school students nearly two to one.

Arizona school districts, much to their credit, are leading the way in providing out-of-zone education options to Arizona families. In other words, despite the tenor of the debate by various advocacy organizations, the reality is that choice is being done by districts rather than to districts.

Much work remains to be done, and many Arizona K-12 policies and practices look increasingly antiquated given the very high mobility of students. Despite a majority of students attending non-zoned schools, for example, we continue to give exclusive transportation taxing authority to districts. Districts continue to primarily bus kids around within their attendance boundaries, and thus most students do not benefit from funding to which everyone contributes. Such an antiquated system looks like an 8-track cartridge in a Spotify world. Just imagine what we might accomplish with a modernized and rational system of student transport.

In the meantime, it looks like a continuing flow of Angelenos will continue to transport themselves to Arizona despite the steep price for moving trucks. 

 Dr. Matthew Ladner is the executive director of the Center for Student Opportunity

Matthew Ladner

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