Marking 30 years of educational choice and innovation

This year marks the 30th anniversary of passage of the nation’s first charter school law, a movement that has benefited Arizona perhaps more than any other state. 

Matthew Ladner

Stanford University scholars, for instance, linked testing data across the country and found only 28 general enrollment public schools nationwide where the students learned at a rate 50% or more above the national average. Arizona has 11 of those 28 schools, and charter schools make up nine of the 11.  

Scholars widely regard academic growth as the best measure of school quality, and Arizona has the fastest rate of academic growth nationwide and across multiple student subgroups. Arizona’s reward for embracing education choice, however, goes far beyond academic achievement alone. Among students of all income levels, Arizona has the nation’s highest rate of academic growth during the period studied by the Stanford scholars (2008-2018). Arizona was also the only state identified by Stanford scholars to have a rate of academic growth faster for low-income students than their high-income peers. 

Arizona’s public education system has flourished by freeing educators to create their own schools. In 1994, a bipartisan majority of Arizona lawmakers passed the nation’s broadest charter school law and adopted an “open enrollment” policy that allowed families to enroll their child at a public school outside their zoned district, tuition-free. Arizona now has the country’s highest percentage of students attending charter schools (almost 22%), as well as a robust system of open enrollment between district schools. 

A majority of Phoenix-area students attend schools other than the one assigned based on their zip code. Rather than withering in the face of competition, these Arizona districts have actually improved over time – demonstrating once again that healthy competition helps make all schools better. Arizona’s nation-leading academic gains would not be possible without the success of its district schools, and it is to their credit that they’ve adapted and thrived in this environment of education choice. 

If you’ve been around a gathering of teachers, the topic of conversation will often turn to administrative folly. Many teachers regard this as just another sacrifice they have to make in order to serve students. Arizona policy gave educators the opportunity to show us, not just to tell us, how much better things would be if they ran schools. Arizona educators can and have pursued their own vision of educational excellence. 

Arizona is a wildly diverse state. Our families have varying priorities and preferences, and our students possess different aspirations. Some Arizona charters focus on the arts; others specialize in STEM, equestrianism, classical education, back-to-basics and much more. Many Arizona charters give students with troubled academic careers a second chance, while others offer accelerated curricula that match or exceed the most advanced college-prep schools in the country. Recent years have seen the advent of charter schools focused on helping students with disabilities, such as autism. 

Systemic improvement begins with individual solutions. We have vital equity issues around funding, transportation and enrollment to address. Matters were improving quickly before the pandemic struck in early 2020, but learning loss during the past 18 months poses a new and serious challenge. 

But our nation’s past three decades of experience with charter schools suggest empowering educators and freeing families to select the right school for their children is the fastest way to help get Arizona K-12 back on track. 

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

Matthew Ladner

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