For many years in Arizona, policymakers have been working to find the best way to expand school choice options to reach out to the neediest children and turn their lives around.
Ever since passing the nation’s first tuition tax credit law in 1997, Arizona has been a leader in offering parents choice. Lawmakers have acknowledged that a system relying solely on public schools loses out on numerous opportunities to improve.
With a legislature committed to school choice, holding the concept that competition raises the bar for all schools, public and private, the challenge in recent years has been to overcome the special interests dedicated to maintaining the status quo. The perseverance legislators exhibited during tense budget negotiations with the executive branch last year paid off for the children of Arizona.
In the 2006 legislative session Arizona took dramatic steps to improve choice for parents by creating a new tax credit for businesses. For years, individuals have been able to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations made to student tuition organizations, up to $1,000 for a married couple. Legislation passed last session opened the way for businesses to take the same dollar-for-dollar tax credit.
The program is capped at $10 million but open to any business. Within five months, more than 70 businesses had sought to donate nearly $4.5 million to student tuition organizations. That money can be used only for low- and moderate-income families to send their children to private and religious schools.
Moving to Vouchers
Additionally, for the first time, Arizona took a major step toward expanding school choice by using vouchers. Two pieces of legislation were passed and signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), offering hope to two groups of children that often have difficulty in public schools.
One voucher is aimed at special-needs children and the other targets foster children, allowing them to choose any school and have the money follow them to their school of choice.
The state has also led the way in charter school expansion.
Arizona has more charter schools per capita than any other state. Charter schools (public schools that are operated privately) have shown they offer an excellent educational setting at lower cost than their regular public school counterparts. They also encourage public schools to improve to fend off competition and retain students.
In addition to last session’s school choice victories, the Arizona Legislature is looking to address the problem of high school failure. Too many children drop out or fail to reach the minimum academic standards to be prepared for college or the workforce. This session, a comprehensive high school reform package will be introduced that will involve making the high school curriculum more relevant and rigorous.
As schools provide courses that offer the skills needed to succeed in life, students will respond with greater interest in school. In addition, schools will be asked to find ways to personalize education for each student and use technology to improve the quality of teaching for all kids.
This year promises to be one with a major focus on improving educational outcomes for the children of Arizona. With parental choice firmly in place, our focus will be on the vast majority of children still struggling in public schools held back by the inertia of special interests and bureaucracy.
State Rep. Mark Anderson (R-Mesa) ([email protected]) chairs the Arizona House K-12 Education Committee.