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School Choice

Oct 17, 2017

What you need to know

by Jonae Harrison, CPLC Policy Analyst

Understanding the many education options in Arizona can seem intimidating.

Popular terms such as “school choice,” “parent choice,” and “best interests of the student” litter education dialogue. But before a parent can choose the right school, they must understand the differences between the varied platforms that form the base of this “choice.”

Public Schools

Public school is the most common school option. Public school can mean traditional district schools, charter schools, online schools, and alternative schools. Arizona public schools are regulated by the Arizona Department of Education (“ADE”). The ADE, as of September 2013, was comprised of 230 districts and 406 charter holders, of which there are 2000 public schools—1500 traditional public schools and 500 charter schools.

With the advent of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces No Child Left Behind, states are moving away from a focus on standardized tests as a measure of a public school’s success. These ESSA procedures are designed to help ensure that “every student, regardless of their zip code, will have the support, tools and time to learn that they need to succeed” and that “educators’ voices are part of the decision making process.” The specific procedures are being formulated in Arizona through a series of forums and town halls conducted by Diane Douglas, Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Charter Schools

Charter schools were first introduced in Arizona in 1994. They account for nearly one third of all public schools in the state. Though they receive public funding and are subject to public accountability, they are privately owned. Funding for charter schools has increased from $231.2M in FY2015 to a proposed maximum of $300M in FY2020.

Given the infancy of Arizona’s charter school program (just 23 years old), their review process has led to unforeseen consequences: Charter schools are reviewed after 15 years. However, there is limited review of a charter school’s performance during this 15-year span. This looser accountability gives way to the potential for continued operations of failing schools.

Private Schools

Private schools are privately owned entities, like charter schools. While they can take many forms, the most common are parochial (ie. Catholic) schools, which account for 57% of Arizona private schools. Private schools are known for smaller classroom sizes, higher graduation rates, and higher enrollment in college. Unlike public or charter schools, parents of children in private schools can be responsible for the costs of tuition as well as additional fees such as books and uniforms. There are approximately 478 private schools in Arizona educating 64,840 students.

Unlike charter schools, private schools are not subject to public accountability or standardized regulation. They can limit enrollment based on gender as well as testing and language.

Private School Vouchers

Vouchers act as a bridge between public funds and private schools. Arizona’s voucher program, called the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), began in 2011 as a way to give students with special needs access to additional academic resources. The program provides qualifying students with a $5,000 credit towards their private school tuition. It has since expanded to include access for foster children, children from poor-performing schools, children of military families, residents of Native American reservations, and siblings of current ESA program participants. Under the law signed by Governor Ducey on April 6, 2017, up to 30,000 Arizona students can be eligible for the program by 2020, pending a referendum vote on the November 2018 election.

Some of the lesser known facts about the current functionality of the program include:

Some of the unintended consequences of a voucher program can be:

To make the right “choice” for your student and make your voice heard in the discussion, you first must be armed with information. Pay attention, familia, these policies affect you.

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