Longform

The High Cost of Education Reform

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This funding dilemma led Roosevelt to sue the state over its education-funding formula. That suit produced the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1994, which held that Arizona's reliance on local property taxes caused gross--in fact, unconstitutional--disparities in educational opportunity.

So far, the courts haven't mandated a remedy for the school-funding dilemma.
And, while professing a commitment to resolving the funding inequities, Governor Symington also has used the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to continue his long series of attacks on what he sees as improper judicial activism.

"The ruling is just another example of the court's unbridled proclivity to engage in public policymaking," Symington said in a September address.

"The decision was not based on a thorough airing orunderstanding of the issues--it was based on a desire by three members of the Court to sympathize with the emotional pleas of school officials aided by opportunistic lawyers."

In early December, more than a year after the Supreme Court ruled, school equalization was pulled from the agenda of a special legislative session because Republican leaders could not agree on even the outlines of a solution.

And not everyone in the revolutionary camp agrees that an emergency is at hand.

"As far as I know, no child has ever died because of a building-safety problem," says Huppenthal, the education committee chairman.

Rather than focus on reforming an underfunded, overburdened, inequitable and bureaucratic system of public education, Arizona's conservative leaders have set about building a new one.

In the process, their approach to reform has created a climate of near-hatred in educational circles--a climate that has stalled most grassroots attempts to improve the education of children.

During the past two years, Arizona has launched two much-publicized reforms: open enrollment in public schools and the charter school program. Both of these market-driven programs fall under the rubric of "parental choice," a part of the Republicans' Contract With America.

Open enrollment allows parents to send their children, and the state funding attached to them, to schools in any district, regardless of where the parents reside. Under prevailing Republican theory, open enrollment will allow parents to move their children to high-quality schools, putting pressure on poorly performing schools, which will lose students and state funding if they don't improve.

Whether open enrollment can do any of that remains an open question, if for no other reason than the short time the reform has been in place.

Under its charter-school program, Arizona allows individual education providers--both for-profit and nonprofit--to contract with the state to educate children. The program is generally considered the most ambitious in the country.

Free from most of the restraints of the state's labyrinthine Education Code, charter schools have an undeniable potential to offer real improvements over standard public education. These schools are able to limit their size and provide a boutique-style, individualized education often absent from public-sector schooling.

But charter schools serve just 1 percent of the state's total school population. They're not likely to replace the neighborhood school anytime soon.

Symington wanted more than open enrollment and charter schools. He pushed long and hard for Arizona to be the first state to use a system of public-money vouchers to pay for private-school tuition.

But Symington lost a vicious, three-year legislative battle over vouchers. He blamed the public teachers' union for the loss, and has made a habit of nearly demonizing teachers ever since.

When the state gave public schools a minor budget increase for inflation, it came with a caveat: None of the money could be used to pay teachers' salaries.

The state's undeniably archaic, seniority-based teacher pay schedule is by far the largest share of every school budget. But teachers saw the salary restriction not as reform, but as punishment.

Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, began to blame educators publicly for the global downfall of education.

The hatred-and-blame game has continued to this day.
In a September speech, Symington contended that "westill have the agonizing problems of low test scores and high dropout [rates]." He even claimed that entrance-exam scores for the college-bound had fallen.

Actually, Arizona students have, on average, scored about the same on national tests in each of the past four years. They are a few notches above the national average in nearly every category. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores--the bench mark for admission to college--are up slightly, too.

But there are ominous problems in Arizona public schools, particularly in the state's resource-starved inner-city schools. Those problems involve poor and minority children who drop out of school at astonishing rates or, if they stay in class, lag further behind their more affluent suburban counterparts with each passing year.

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Lisa Davis