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School Choice and the Heresy of Success

July 9, 2019

July 9, 2019
By Matt Beienburg

What do the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR), and The Arizona Republic have in common?

Well, thanks to Republic columnist Robert Robb and several publications from ED and ABOR, the answer is: promoting “scandalous” ideas. “Scandalous,” I mean, for suggesting that student outcomes—rather than institutional inputs—might be the best measure of our K-12 education system.

The U.S. Department of Education administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test to students across the country, and the scores compare student performance in each state. As Robb noted this past weekend in his column, the National Assessment Governing Board (which oversees the NAEP test) “recently released a short study hailing the fact that the gains of Arizona students on the NAEP test were roughly double the national average from 2005 to 2017.”

It may sound a bit odd that Arizona students have achieved gains at twice the rate of their peers in other states, especially amid the annual refrain that Arizona has decimated its public school system through funding cuts and the proliferation of uncontrolled school-choice programs over the same period.  

Indeed, how do we square this positive academic news with the state getting routinely panned by the Education Week “Quality Counts” series under headlines like “Arizona Earns D-Plus on State Report Card, Ranks 46th in the Nation” in 2018?

Well, it basically boils down to which we think is more important: how much we spend on our K-12 system, or what our students actually get for all that money.

For example, in the EdWeek “Quality Counts” ratings, Arizona’s 2018 “K-12 Achievement” score is just a single point below the national average (72.7 vs 71.6). But thanks mostly to the EdWeek formula docking Arizona 12 points below average for K-12 spending in the “School Finance” category, the state’s overall score drops down to a D. (See the graph below.)

In other words, there’s no actual contradiction between Arizona’s impressive NAEP gains and the seemingly harsh scores from sources like EdWeek, as long as we’re talking about actual student achievement.

So if they’re real, what explains these gains? The National Assessment Governing Board credits Arizona’s adoption of more rigorous state standards circa 2015, though as Robb points out, Arizona Chamber Foundation researcher Matthew Ladner had already documented most of the academic gains before the new standards were actually even implemented. 

Rather, as Robb suggests, the “largest change, by far, in Arizona’s educational landscape during the period” was actually the proliferation of school-choice options via charter schools, district open enrollment policies, etc. Arizona, he notes, has become “the first state in the union in which competition for students became broad enough to test the theory” that competition could help drive student performance, and the results are now bearing fruit. Robb, it seems, is spot on.

Of course, encouraging test scores are only one imperfect measure among many, and true competition requires giving parents the ability to evaluate their educational options fully.

It’s for this reason that the Arizona Board of Regents deserves attention and credit as well for having made enormous strides in compiling data on the postsecondary success of Arizona students, establishing an entire “Student Outcomes” portal with data available on virtually every public high school in Arizona. Such tools allow parents to see which schools are truly equipping their students for success after senior year by reporting, for example, the percentage of graduates from each school who go on to in enroll in, and subsequently graduate from, a 2- or 4-year college program.

Admittedly, not all school qualities can be measured, however, and it’s for this reason that parents likewise deserve transparency in other aspects of their children’s education—being informed, for example, of the core textbooks and reading lists their children will be introduced to in their course of study. (State Senator Sylvia Allen deserves commendations for promoting a version of this idea during the recent legislative session.)

Indeed, while politicians and pundits will ever debate issues of funding, regulation, and policy, our highest priority should be on empowering families to pursue the most promising educational avenue available. Based on a decade of improvement, that focus seems to be working.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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