In the children's book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, children witness a series of increasingly bizarre events, including seeing a flock of sheep walk by in their sleep. Those who have repeatedly read the book to children will remember the line "By the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far."
Between stadiums, light rail, biotech, and university campuses, I sometimes feel like one of the kids watching one strange turn follow another. Just when you think you've seen everything, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon announces the creation of a new international competition for street performers. Paging Dr. Seuss?
The city's plan to promote tourism in downtown Phoenix by expanding the Civic Plaza and building a hotel near the vicinity suffers from problems both near and far. The "near" problem involves the fact that many will always prefer one of the fantastic private Valley resorts. The "far" problem is that the juggernaut of the convention business lies just a few hours away in Las Vegas.
The competitive Scottsdale and Vegas resorts won't likely be too concerned about competing with downtown Phoenix for tourists. Phoenix taxpayers, however, have every reason to be concerned.
Phoenix has enjoyed remarkable economic success despite, not because of, an infusion of approximately $2.4 billion into downtown since 1989. Downtown boosters continually bemoan downtown Phoenix but can scarcely explain the remarkable economic success of the city despite its lack of a "hip" city center.
Now another $2 to $3 billion is in the works for downtown projects. Phoenix taxpayers may soon feel caught in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
A friend recently asked, "If Arizona is the national leader in school choice, why is student achievement so low?"
Good question. Arizona is on the vanguard of school choice with more charter schools per capita than any other state and a scholarship system that gives thousands of students the ability to attend private schools. Nevertheless, Arizona student achievement in reading and math has largely stagnated over the past 10 years according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
If the competitive forces unleashed by school choice are so powerful, where are the improved test scores?
Despite having introduced competition into the Arizona education marketplace, school choice programs reach fewer than 10 percent of students. Researchers have documented improved test scores among these students. But the gains of that 10 percent of students are crowded out when amassed with the overall student population.
School choice should be a universal option. Instead of funding schools, state legislators should fund students directly, and let their parents redeem those education grants at the best available school-whether public, charter, or private. When parents have the ability to choose schools, failing schools will improve or shut down, and good schools where children excel will expand and flourish.
Limited competition has helped some; universal competition will help all. The proof will be in Arizona's rising student achievement.
-Caroline Hoxby: Rising Tide
-Goldwater Institute: Comparison of Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools on Retention, School Switching, and Achievement Growth
-Clive Belfield and Henry Levin: The Effects of Competition on Educational Outcomes: A Review of US Evidence
-Goldwater Institute: A Guide to Understanding State Funding of Arizona Public School Students
Last week, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a redesign plan for the state's three public universities that includes changes such as allowing each university to define its own unique mission. Importantly, the regents note that giving students a choice among three public universities and a "modest" number of private colleges is "like being in a coffee shop and having a choice only between a large coffee and a medium coffee rather than having access to a full menu."
Unfortunately, the regents' plan to keep just "three universities for now" is a pretty weak cup o' Joe.
The regents need only look as far as Colorado to see that all universities could be put on the menu. Beginning this fall, Colorado no longer makes a false distinction between public and private universities. Instead of lump-sum appropriations to public colleges and universities, funds follow students to any in-state public or private college of their choice.
With more than 300 private colleges and universities in Arizona, a similar plan would give students a full menu of education options.
These days, a coffee shop wouldn't be in business very long if it offered only three blends. It's time to offer Arizona college students the entire menu.
- Arizona Republic: "Regents Okay Redesign"
-Arizona Board of Regents: "A Redesigned Public University System"
-Colorado College Opportunity Fund
-Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education: College and Career Guide
Last week I wrote about the unfortunate fact that many Katrina evacuee students have been placed in Phoenix's Roosevelt School District.
Arizona Education Association president John Wright responded with a letter you can read in its entirety here. He wrote:
"Under Arizona LEARNS the state's system to measure school performance based on student achievement, including student performance on the AIMS test 17 out of the district's 20 schools are performing. Fifteen of 20 schools have met Average Yearly Progress as outlined under the No Child Left Behind law. Specifically Roosevelt's Maxine O. Bush Elementary School...was listed as a 'performing' school ....The school has also been recognized ... for its outstanding achievement in reading. Eighty-six percent of students leaving kindergarten are reading at the first grade level."
At first blush, so much talk about "performance" makes it sound like these schools are educating students. However, the bar for federal and state standards is dreadfully low. Escaping the state and federal lists of failing schools means little. For example, TG Barr Elementary scored in the bottom 10 percent of schools in national standardized tests. Nevertheless, Barr escapes the federal failure list.
Likewise, the Maxine O. Bush school that Mr. Wright cites as "performing" scores in the bottom 10 percent of Arizona public schools on national reading and writing tests. Looking locally, Bush fifth-graders passed AIMS reading and math exams at less than half the Arizona state average. What exactly should we consider failing, if not that?
A reasonable alternative to placing students in troubled schools is to open doors to the best available schools, including private ones. President Bush's emergency education plan includes this option. A broad consensus from Bush on the right to Sen. Christopher Dodd on the left supports the measure. Yet the National Education Association assails it. "We should be focusing our efforts on meeting the needs of these students, not opening up a debate on vouchers," said NEA president Reg Weaver.
Mr. Wright likewise says, "This is not the time or place to debate educational ideology. Our first priority must be to meet the needs of the displaced students." On this point we agree. I invite readers to access the data for the Roosevelt schools at www.greatschools.net and consider whether this is the best Arizona has to offer these students.
I invite further reply from Mr. Wright, or we can simply let the scores speak for themselves.
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