On Tuesday Gov. Janet Napolitano presented the recommendations of the "Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future Task Force," which she co-chairs. The task force claims to recognize the urgency of "new thinking" and making "radical changes" in education to prepare children for the modern world.
However, the governor's education agenda is little more than an echo of a bygone era that would expand the very 19th century government-run system that created many of the problems the her task force seeks to solve.
One recommendation is to spend an additional $325 billion "to build a new, comprehensive model of public education, one that begins at birth and continues through postsecondary study." Yet since 1959, per-pupil spending in American public schools has more than tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars while standardized test scores have declined. Given that, it's perfectly reasonable to question whether more spending will have a different effect this time.
Other recommendations include longer school hours, longer school years, preschool and all-day kindergarten, and putting Washington, D.C., in charge of setting national academic standards. To one degree or another, all of these solutions have been tried and failed.
But in some sectors of America's school system, there have been successful reforms. Research shows that students and schools in areas where parents do the choosing perform better across every outcome, including higher student test scores, graduation rates, and greater parental satisfaction.
Competition and freedom are timely-and timeless-solutions for real education reform.
Remember college? During political campaigns, it was common practice to put up signs-even paper entire walls-with ads supporting your candidate. But what if you had known that putting up those signs would actually help the opposing candidate? Would you bother posting signs or getting involved at all?
That's the speech-chilling conundrum faced by groups from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce to Arizona trade associations that want to voice support for or opposition against various candidates for public office.
For every dollar independent groups spend on radio ads, billboards, and political mailings to support privately financed candidates, government-financed candidates receive one taxpayer dollar from Arizona's Clean Elections system.
However, a lawsuit wending its way through the Ninth Federal Circuit could end those regulations that stifle free speech.
Filed last year by the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter on behalf of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Sen. Dean Martin, and former congressman Matt Salmon, the lawsuit argues that Clean Elections should not trump Arizonans' free speech rights, and cites previous court decisions, including a 1988 federal ruling that struck down similar provisions in Minnesota on free speech grounds.
If the court rules in favor of the Institute for Justice, matching provisions and other rules that penalize privately financed candidates could be eliminated. While a final decision may be years away, a favorable ruling could restore the fair treatment of political speech.
-Institute for Justice: "Challenging Arizona's 'Clean Elections' Act That Punishes Candidates Who Don't Take Taxpayer Money"
-Bolick: "Initiative Ruling Marks Decline of Once-Proud Court"
-Study: Is Cleanliness Political Godliness? Arizona's Clean Elections Law after Its First Year
The Arizona Republic reports that "the state is spending more than $150,000 to put Governor Janet Napolitano's face on billboards that promote Arizona tourism at several well-traveled intersections in Phoenix and Tucson." The headline sums up the question at hand: "Tourism promotion or political advertising?"
Entering election season, a number of the Governor's activities will invariably raise the question of what constitutes doing a job and what constitutes doing a job on taxpayers.
Other activities underscoring that fine line include starring in "Click It or Ticket" seat-belt ads and embarking on "Governor Napolitano's 2005 Arizona Treasures Tour," which highlights unique places in Arizona but also happens to send the governor to Arizona's most populous cities and towns. (Noticeably absent are some of Arizona's most famous tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Lake Powell, which have small populations.)
It's reasonable to ask who the primary beneficiary of these campaigns is. Never mind that the Office of Tourism receives nearly $13 million in taxpayer subsidies in a state where businesses are perfectly capable of paying for their own advertising. There are plenty of Arizonans, from Alice Cooper and Michelle Branch to Rick Schroder and Paul Harvey, whose faces could bring attention to the state, if that were the primary purpose.
The truth is that name ID and face recognition matter in politics, and Arizona taxpayers are footing the bill for this backdoor electioneering.
Arizona students are returning to school or enrolling for the first time, providing an opportunity to take note of the expanding revolution in American education: the ability of parents to choose the best school for their children.
Parents have a growing opportunity to pick the education setting most closely aligned with the individual needs of their child, and public schools face a growing level of competition for students. Nearly a fourth of K-12 students nationwide are not attending their neighborhood public schools, opting instead for an array of public and private options.
State legislatures have established seven school-voucher programs and six education tax-credit programs since 1990. State governments created two of these programs this year and expanded five existing programs.
These programs increase the access for parents to choose private schooling for their children.
In addition, unknown numbers of children attend public schools of choice through interdistrict and intradistrict choice and/or magnet schools.
By the mid-1990s, 1.2 million children were attending these schools. Today, approximately 1 million children now attend charter schools, and as many as 2 million students are home-schooled.
Florida has been a leading state in expanding school-choice options. Through the creation of three statewide choice programs - A+ Scholarships for children in failing schools (800 students); McKay Scholarships for children with disabilities (18,000 students); and tax-credit scholarships for low-income children (15,000 students) - Florida has led the way in the creation of school choice.
The Miami-Dade public school system recently announced its intention to create new magnet-school options as a response to the competition.
"We cannot be ostriches anymore with our heads in the sand," a district official told the Miami Herald.
"They either get on board with the changing landscape of public education, or they're going to be left behind, with no students and no teachers," a Miami teacher union official stated.
Harvard, Stanford and University of Wisconsin scholars have established that children using choice programs score higher on achievement tests. The evidence concerning children remaining in their public schools is even more compelling.
Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby studied Arizona public elementary school test scores and found that those schools facing high levels of competition from charter schools made gains in fourth-grade reading four times as large as the other schools.
While choice reform continues to advance, the issue has unfortunately become embroiled in a political controversy in Arizona.
Last session, the Arizona Legislature passed and Gov. Janet Napolitano agreed to sign - and then vetoed - a significant expansion in school choice for low-income parents in the form of a tax credit for corporations providing scholarships to students to attend independent schools.
While the veto has become a heated dispute, it is important to recognize that the ultimate winners from the resolution will be thousands of Arizona children who will have the opportunity to attend a school best matching their needs as chosen by the parents.
Arizona badly needs this legislation and more like it, especially in areas where the need for options is most urgent.
High-performing public and charter schools often have years-long waiting lists, while nearby independent schools have empty seats. Despite the progress made toward choice in Arizona, desperate parents often face terrible difficulty in finding a seat for the child when a change is needed. Upper-income people fled poorly performing public schools decades ago by exercising the most common form of school choice: buying a home in the suburbs.
Giving the children of low-income families a similar chance to have their parents choose a school that serves their needs spurs public school reform and equality of opportunity, one of the few things upon which all Arizonans genuinely agree.
This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Republic , August 19, 2005. The writer is director of state projects for the Alliance for School Choice and a senior fellow for the Goldwater Institute.
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