In 1994, Arizona lawmakers took the first steps toward parental choice in education through the open-enrollment and charter school laws. Later, lawmakers added reforms such as scholarship tax credits (1997 and 2006) and limited vouchers (2006). With 13 years of experience in school choice experiments, the time has come for Arizona to take stock of the past and make plans for the future. This paper examines the progress of the existing Arizona school choice programs and makes recommendations for their improvement and expansion.
Research from Harvard, UCLA, and other institutions has shown that Arizona's choice programs have improved public school performance and led to faster learning gains for students exercising choice.
Research also shows that choice programs are not plagued by some of the pitfalls critics feared. For instance, data show that parents are not motivated by segregationist impulses in choosing schools outside of their assigned public schools. Rather, parents choose schools with higher test scores.
Despite the promise of school choice, the pace of charter school openings has stalled in recent years, largely because of problems with the charter school authorization process. Allowing universities to authorize charter schools should help to expand the charter school market.
Likewise, Arizona's existing school choice programs are too small to create a widespread system of competition for students. Arizona's scholarship tax credit is limited, raising less revenue than would cover half of a single medium-sized school districts operating expenses. Enrollment growth in the public schools has far outpaced the creation of new parental options. Some abysmally performing Arizona districts, for example, have more students today than before the school choice implementation in 1994.
Parents and students have benefited from Arizona's positive, but limited, school choice programs. To fully enjoy the benefits of parental choice, lawmakers should create a personal use tax credit. Coupled with means-testing of the original scholarship credit, such a tax credit would create a universal system of school choice.