ARIZONA'S EDUCATION SYSTEM IS READY FOR REFORM SCHOOL

FOR ONCE, BIG BUSINESS AND EDUCATORS ARE IN CONCERT. BUT WILL LAWMAKERS FACE THE MUSIC

In Arizona, where today's total public school enrollment (grades K-12) is about 700,000, more than 40,000 kids go to schools outside their attendance areas, and more than 10,000 commute out of their districts. Of course, a big percentage--something like 40 percent--of those who do transfer do so because the federal government has forced districts to desegregate.

Arizona Department of Education statistics show that about one-third of the state's transfer students who are not under federal mandate leave their schools to find a better academic atmosphere elsewhere. The rest, DOE says, transfer because the school of choice might be located closer to after-school day care, or for other reasons of convenience. Charter schools are often included in official school-choice plans, and have been frequently discussed during Arizona's reform movement. These schools are created by groups of teachers and/or parents who break away from a district (but not a district's money) to fulfill their own vision of what a learning environment should be.

Kozol, who lives outside of Boston, says he's wary of "conservative business folks" now pushing school choice and charter schools around the country. "They see it as a Trojan horse," he says, "a foot in the door for vouchers." @rule:

@body:Related to school choice--and conspicuous by its absence from the set of reforms included in SB 1101--is the controversial reform known as "the voucher system." Promoted heavily in recent years by political conservatives who believe it would create healthy free-market competition in American education, a voucher system would distribute tax money raised for schools to students, who then would tote their "voucher" wherever they see fit, to the public school on the corner or to the private academy or parochial school across town.

The huge philosophical differences dividing proponents and opponents of the voucher approach have kept it from being tested on a large scale anywhere in the country. The City of Milwaukee is trying a tiny pilot program, but large-scale examples don't exist.

Colorado voters turned down a voucher-system ballot measure last year, and surveys of Colorado voters after the election showed that the greatest opposition to vouchers came from people who didn't want taxpayer money to support private religious schools (the fastest-growing category of private schools in America are run by fundamentalist Christians), which they see as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Polls done on the issue in Arizona are inconclusive, but Governor Symington has been a strident supporter of the concept, and it still figures in unofficial legislative debate. ABLE's earlier platforms supported voucher experiments, and some of the CEOs still actively promote the concept. But heavy education-lobby opposition has eliminated voucher talk from any recent serious discussion of Arizona school reform. "The education people will never come around," says legislator Graham, who favors voucher experiments. "We don't seem to work that into any conversation without someone going quite pale." @rule:

@body:One academic, writing in an academic journal, argues that limiting the definition of at-risk students to "poor, non-English-speaking and/or handicapped students" leaves out a few variables. He suggests expanding the definition to include "students who are characterized by two or more of the following factors: poor prenatal and medical care, premature birth, substance abuse/drug addicted at birth, poverty, physical or emotional handicap, abuse or neglect, malnourished, school-dropout parent(s), illiterate or semiliterate parent(s), teenage parent(s), migrant-worker parent(s), single female parent(s), AIDS (child or parent), divorced parents, working parent(s)/latchkey parent(s), mentally handicapped parent(s), non-English-speaking parent(s), unemployed parent(s) and incarcerated parent(s)."

Teachers strive mightily to avoid branding youngsters with the at-risk tag--it's not something you'd hear in a classroom. But the growth of this population in some districts has clearly begun to overwhelm the system.

At-risk students bring a whole new world of needs with them to school every day. "Things you would think would be taught at home," says one Phoenix grade school teacher. "Discipline. How to react to another person. Values. Morals. How to handle emotions. Self-motivation."

Schools around the country have been experimenting with programs that might help lessen the risks for at-risk kids. Research shows that the federal Head Start program, which offers preschool for disadvantaged children, works. Such preschool efforts, as well as all-day kindergarten and various in-class techniques, are proven winners in helping to prepare at-risk students for the remainder of their education. In Phoenix's Creighton School District, more than 60 percent of the students qualify for cheap or free meals. "Some of our children, believe me, have never been north of Camelback Road, or been south of Roosevelt," says superintendent Don Covey. "Their whole world is right here."

Through vigorous pursuit of grant money and district budget-override funding, Creighton has attempted to counteract some of the things on the long list of negative variables affecting at-risk students.

Children who entered William T. Machan Elementary School at 20th Street and Campbell as kindergarteners in 1988 were in the first classes to receive special attention paid for by the extra money, and are now in the fourth grade. Compared with transfer students, the fourth graders who have spent their whole academic careers at Machan have lower absenteeism and higher reading and math test scores. The same tests place their study skills at almost a full grade level higher than the transfer students. In 1988-89, third-grade teachers at Machan, using a wider definition than the free-lunch program, identified 70 percent of their students as at-risk. In 1991, the same teachers said they would categorize only 49 percent of their students that way.

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