Darcy Olsen

Napolitano's Choice Veto: Arizona's governor should reconsider the record on school choice

Posted on March 21, 2005 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Darcy Olsen
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Milton Friedman's landmark proposal for a student-funded education system as it first appeared in the book Economics and the Public Interest. Earlier this month, the Arizona senate put this plan into legislation that could become the nation's first universal voucher program. It would be a fitting tribute.

Unfortunately, a veto is expected.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D) has said, "I will, out of courtesy to the Legislature, if the voucher bill gets to my desk...do one more pass-through of the arguments in favor of vouchers. To date, I have not yet heard anything to persuade me that this improves the quality of education."

Not so long ago, such a statement might have been understandable. But over the past 15 years, 14 states and cities have enacted as many school-choice programs. There exists now an overwhelming body of research by scholars from such leading universities and research organizations as the Brookings Institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Columbia University, Princeton University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showing how school choice improves the quality of education.

Consider Milwaukee, where 15,000 students participate in the voucher program. This year, Wisconsin legislators are considering lifting the cap to allow more children to participate due to the program's popularity. High parental demand is no mystery.

Children using vouchers are graduating from private high schools at a rate nearly two times higher than the graduation rate in the city's public high schools: 64 percent compared to 36 percent respectively. Those results are extraordinary by any measure, and hold particular promise for a state like Arizona, which has the highest reported dropout rate in the country.

Importantly, students who continue attending public schools also fare better under a grant system. In studying Milwaukee, Harvard University economist Caroline M. Hoxby found that in public schools facing competition, student achievement rose 4.7 national percentile points faster per year than in similar public schools that did not face competition.

The pronounced gains led one school-choice opponent, State Rep. Christine Sinicki, to candidly tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I really hate to say this because I'm not a choice supporter, but I do think that the threat of choice did force the public school system to make those changes."

The good results from across the nation keep coming. Programs in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, and Washington, D.C., show strong academic gains for children from low-income families. In those cities, African-American students from low-income families who transferred into private schools did considerably better than students who did not receive a voucher opportunity. They scored, on average, three percentile points higher than their public-school peers in year one, six percentile points higher in year two, and seven points higher in year three.

Perhaps it is evidence like this that has caused so many members of the governor's party to reconsider their opposition to school choice. Last year, Congress enacted the first federally funded school voucher program for students in Washington, D.C., thanks to support from Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and senators Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.), Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), and Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.). Many Democrats have embraced school choice, understanding that it brings to K-12 education the fairness and equality that the G.I. Bill and Pell grants brought to higher education.

The irony of the governor's threatened veto is that the benefits of school choice are readily apparent in her own state of Arizona. Nearly 100,000 students are served in Arizona's 500 plus charter schools and in hundreds of private schools courtesy of a unique tuition-scholarship tax credit. These programs have opened up better educational opportunities for thousands of students. Test scores for participating students have improved, as have the test scores of students in public schools facing the greatest degree of competition.

Unfortunately, Arizona's school-choice programs reach only an estimated ten percent of students and are not widespread enough to stem the overwhelming tide of poor student achievement plaguing the state. In the past 20 years, Arizona students' cumulative SAT scores have dropped 76 points, the worst percentage drop in the country. Since 1991, Arizona has had the highest dropout rate in the country. And of those who graduate, only one in three is prepared for college. This is despite the doubling of K-12 expenditures in the past decade.

How many more years will opportunity be withheld from students while political expediency takes precedence over what is right? We remind the governor that the grant system will be optional for families. Children who are flourishing in their current schools can remain. Children who are not flourishing will be given a chance. This educational opportunity is hers to give, or take.

- Darcy Olsen is president & CEO of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Ariz.

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