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Arizona Republic.

A No. 1 ranking we should maintain
Arizona out front in educational freedom
January 27, 2002

By Robert Robb

Arizona ranked first in an education study that deserves attention during a period of restrained government resources.

Last week, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research released the first-ever Education Freedom Index, prepared by Dr. Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow.

The index compares the extent to which state public policy gives educational options to parents and students. As it turns out, Arizona families have more educational liberty than those in any other state in the country.

Greene analyzed state policies in five areas. The first was the freedom to choose and operate charter schools.

He compared the percentage of state schools that are charters and the regulatory climate for their operation as evaluated by the Center for Education Reform.

Arizona ranked first in this area by a long shot, having four times the percentage of charter schools as Michigan, the second-ranked state.

The second category was government assistance for students attending private schools. Three factors were weighed: percentage of students attending private school with governmental vouchers; tax credits or deductions for private school expenses; and direct governmental aid to private schools for such things as transportation, textbooks or equipment.

Arizona ranked 16th in this measure. We have a generous income tax credit of up to $625 on a joint return for donations to organizations providing private school scholarships. But we don't have a voucher program or provide any direct assistance to private schools.

The third category was the freedom to home-school, measured by the percentage of students participating and the regulatory climate as evaluated by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Arizona ranked 13th in home schooling.

The fourth category was the ease of transferring between public school districts. Arizona is one of 18 states determined by Education Week's Quality Counts study to have relatively free inter-district choice, and so shared a No. 1 ranking with the others.But we may be the beneficiary of grade inflation on this one. Arizona restricts transfers from school districts subject to desegregation orders and agreements. These have proliferated over the last decade and a half, and tend to occur in inner-city schools with low student achievement scores.

In other words, the students who might most benefit from public school choice in Arizona may be denied it.

The last category is the ease of moving to another school district, measured by the average school district size in geography and student population.

Greene's point is that large school districts restrict family choice by making it more difficult to choose a different education provider by moving, since attendance rights or preferences in the traditional system are a function of residence.

That's an interesting insight, and should give pause to the movement for school consolidation in Arizona, since we only rank 31st in this area, meaning that compared to other states our school districts are relatively large already.

Freedom, of course, is something of value on its own. But according to Greene, it also produces gains in student achievement.

Student achievement in the states, measured by both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and SAT scores, was more closely correlated with the degree of education freedom permitted than with differences in minority populations, household income, per pupil spending or class room size.

Arizona's education freedom is largely the legacy of political leaders no longer on the scene, such as Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Keegan, Gov. Fife Symington, and Sen. Majority Leader Tom Patterson. Unfortunately, there are no heirs apparent.

These days, education proposals invariably come with more money or regulations, or both. In Arizona today, education freedom is more likely to be restricted than extended.

During a budget crunch, this is a missed opportunity. Additional education freedom usually costs less, not more. For example, a targeted voucher program would save the state money while improving educational opportunity for low-income students.

The Manhattan Institute study indicates that, in Stephen Moore's phrase, freedom works, in education as elsewhere.

In Arizona, the question is: Where is its next generation of champions?

©2002 Arizona Republic


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