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Arizona is a model for school choice: Naturally, Democrats aren’t happy | Strictly Opinion

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Fittingly, the youngest of the contiguous 48 states is leading the brisk pace of the national embrace of K-12 education’s future: school choice. Predictably, Arizona Democrats, including Gov. Katie Hobbs, seem determined to regulate into anemia a program too popular — especially with some traditional Democratic constituencies — to repeal.

In the state’s universal education savings account program, the money follows the pupil. ESAs provide an average of $7,143 for parents of children leaving traditional public schools to spend on alternatives, including home schooling. Arizona spends about $13,500 per public school student; if everyone opted for ESAs, the state would save money.

School choice came here in increments, first (in 2011) for special needs children, then for people in failing schools, then active duty military parents, then Native Americans on reservations. The great accelerant of healthy education policy was a virus. Republican Ben Toma, the state’s House speaker, says universal ESAs “wouldn’t have been possible without covid.”

The pandemic was an ill wind that filled the sails of the choice movement nationally. Children consigned to “remote learning” opened their laptops at home, and parents heard indoctrination served up as learning. And they recoiled against teachers unions that lobbied to keep schools closed, even though children were an age cohort essentially unthreatened by the coronavirus. Even before pandemic, an illegal teachers strike had Arizona parents (in Toma’s words) “fleeing the stupidity.” As the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur has said, “The mystique of the public school teacher” is fading.

Ninety-nine years ago, the Supreme Court, declaring unconstitutional an Oregon law requiring children to attend public schools, affirmed parents’ right to “direct” their children’s education. Teachers unions, among Democrats’ largest donors, work tenaciously to attenuate this right with regulations and litigations about even schools’ minute operational choices.

For more than 30 years, charter schools — non-unionized public schools, exempt from bureaucratic calcification and conformity that stifles pedagogical experimentation — have brought cultural and curricular diversity to 45 states and D.C. Doug Ducey, a Republican who served as governor from 2015 to 2023, made Arizona the nation’s school-choice leader, which is one reason he won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when winning reelection in 2018 against a Hispanic opponent. (Hispanics are the fastest-growing charter school cohort. The affluent have school choice in their checkbooks.) Ducey says that if Arizona’s 525 charter schools were the state’s K-12 system, his state would lead the nation in math, reading and science.

Today, more than one-third of all U.S. schoolchildren could participate in choice programs. Deep-blue Illinois, which recently killed its small school choice program (disproportionately used by minorities), spends 60 percent to 80 percent more per pupil than Texas, Alabama and Tennessee, where school choice is firmly planted and reading results equal those in high-spending Illinois.

Public schools’ educational results often move inversely with the spending that increasingly funds administrative bloat. Between 2002 and 2020, public-school employees increased by about 780,000, about three-quarters of them non-teachers, who in 2020 were 52 percent of schools’ employees. This occurred while the number of pupils plummeted, partly because of union-driven pandemic closures. In deep-blue Connecticut, between 2002 and 2020 public school staffing increased 14.1 percent while enrollments decline 8.2 percent.

Now, unions are demanding money to combat the learning loss their closures caused and talking about teacher shortages while pupil-teacher ratios reach historical lows, partly because of the flight from public schools. Not, however, in red Florida, where teacher pay has increased to cope with the growth of the under-18 population by 120,000 children since 2020.

Because Arizona attained statehood in 1912 — a populist moment, with Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party presidential candidacy — it adopted a constitutional provision for repealing laws by referendum. In 2022, the teachers union failed to get even enough signatures to put repeal of universal ESAs on the ballot.

In purple Arizona, Republicans have only wafer-thin majorities in the House (31-29) and Senate (16-14). So, in effect, school choice will be on ballot in November. Might the high stakes of contests down the ballots — for state legislative seats — cause ripples upward?

Americans are in an a la carte mood, rebelling against constraints on their choices (e.g., cable television “cord cutting”). And they sense that what is emanating from schools today validates this music educator’s axiom, “Mediocrity is like carbon monoxide: You can’t see it or smell it, but one day, you’re dead.”

Schools are, for many Americans, where contact with government is most intimate. And most unsatisfying. It is, however, much more satisfying here than it was before Arizona chose choice.

Reach George Will at georgewill@washpost.com.



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