“The More Choices We Have, the Better Off We’re Going to Be”

Published November 1, 1998

As Arizona’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan serves as CEO of the State Board of Education and oversees the $2 billion budget of the Arizona Department of Education. Elected to the position in 1994, Keegan served from 1991 to 1994 in the Arizona House of Representatives, where she chaired the Education Committee and coauthored many of Arizona’s school reform statutes, including open enrollment and charter schools.

During her tenure as Superintendent, Keegan has presided over the development of a rigorous set of nationally recognized state academic standards and the implementation of Arizona’s progressive charter school law, recognized as the best in the nation for encouraging the startup of new and innovative education institutions. An outspoken advocate for equity in school financing, Keegan frequently testifies on school reform issues in other states and before Congress.

Keegan established the Education Leaders Conference, a national school reform group comprised of governors, chief state school officers, and state board and school board members from across the country. The group has become a leading authority on state efforts to initiate charter schools, expand school choice, and develop academic accountability through standards and assessment.

Keegan grew up in Arizona, where she attended public schools before earning a B.S. in linguistics from Stanford University and an M.S. in communications disorders from Arizona State University. Married to John Keegan, with two children, Keegan was on her way to pick up the youngest from school when she was interviewed by School Reform News managing editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Is school choice something that has interested you for some time?

Keegan: No. When I first ran for the legislature, I was concerned with two issues: commerce, or taxing systems, and education. At that time, I thought that vouchers were a reasonable idea, and that the way we funded schools was crazy, but I was not active for school choice.

It became an issue after I was elected to the legislature, when I sat on the appropriations committee. My father’s mantra, and one that I grew up with, was: “In order to understand anything, you need to understand how money moves.” Once I understood education budgets, I realized how much trouble we were in.

In my second term, I became the chairman of the education committee. I proposed a bill to eliminate the entire title on education and replace it with fifteen pages that basically described everybody’s responsibilities and said that the money should follow the children in the schools. I darned near got killed, which was when I realized what we were up against.

After chairing that committee for one year, I realized that no real reform in education was going to come through consensus. And so that summer, with my staff person, I wrote the education bill with charter schools and vouchers that eventually passed without the voucher provision.

Clowes: Given the opposition to your earlier proposal, how did you manage to get this one passed?

Keegan: They didn’t understand it. We got charter schools in Arizona by focusing on vouchers. We also got a lot of advice from people in Colorado and Minnesota who had preceded us in the charter school movement. They said: “Don’t leave it up to school districts to open charter schools. They won’t do it because then they have to be responsible for schools they don’t want.” So we didn’t do it that way, but the Arizona Education Association just focused on eliminating the voucher provision.

The bill actually died the last night of the session, a couple of votes short. Two weeks later the governor called us back into special session for five days and we passed the bill without the voucher provision. We had been debating the bill since January. Everybody had seen it and everybody was on the record saying it was fine–except for the voucher provision. So they got caught.

The irony is that the voucher provision was just for 2,000 low-income kids with a $1,500 tuition. Now, we have about 37,000 children in public charter schools at full tuition. If anybody is lucky enough to pass a full private school voucher, they would see the same effect that we have seen with public charter schools: a proliferation in the education market, including the private school option.

Clowes: What made you move from the legislature to become Superintendent of Public Instruction?

Keegan: I’m a control freak. When the bill passed, I decided to run for this office because in the bill I had given control of the implementation of charter schools to the state school superintendent. I knew it could be killed with rules and regulations. It was my hope that whoever took that job would run with it because we really gave the Superintendent a lot of authority over the Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

Clowes: With a strong charter school law in place, does Arizona also need a tuition tax credit?

Keegan: The more choices we have, the better off we’re going to be. I don’t see a point where we have too much pressure on our educational system to improve. Whatever helps and whatever works should be available. For example, we will forward a voucher bill again this legislative session. I don’t see a downside in continuing to push for additional options.

We shouldn’t think in terms of just one alternative to public schools, like “This is ‘The School’ and this is ‘The Alternative School.'” I believe what will evolve is a range of different educational options at public expense. For example, private tuition vouchers are publicly funded education, no matter where they’re spent.

Clowes: A recent article in The Weekly Standard said that you were “waging a frontal assault on the notion of local control of education.” Could you explain?

Keegan: We need to get rid of the school districts as a monopoly. School districts now have an exclusive franchise on children who live within their district boundaries. The fact that you elect a school board to run the monopoly does not make it any less of a monopoly. These people make every decision possible about a child’s life when it comes to education. That’s not very democratic. There’s no marketplace there, there’s no choice.

The most difficult of my notions to square with conservative thinking is my advocacy of a state-run financing system. It really is more of a central distribution system than a central control system. It simply means, that, for example, if you had statewide vouchers, you’d have a central distribution system to say: “All kids are worth five thousand dollars a year. Here’s your check.”

Clowes: So school funding is channeled to a central point, and then distributed?

Keegan: Yes. To the parents. For example, the way it will work in Arizona, starting in the year 2000, is that the money for education moves only on the basis of a parent’s signature. So when I sign my children up for school, I sign this form at the school which is effectively a voucher. If that gets turned in to us at the state Education Department, then the money moves. We realize the parent has made a choice, and so we start monthly payments to the school of that parent’s choice. It’s event-driven. If the child moves, the money moves.

When a child goes to a school, that’s an event; we pay for that. When a child leaves a school, that’s another event; we move the money to the child’s new school the next month.

Clowes: Do you take into account cost-of-living variations across the state?

Keegan: Not really. We make differential payments based on need. For example, there’s a multiplier for special education, so that a deaf child has four times the regular amount of funding in recognition of a different education requirement. We don’t make differences in payment that are not student-driven, other than for the size of the school. If you’re at school with less than six hundred kids, that requires more money than a school that’s more than six hundred. We also make payments to areas that have special needs, like building teacherages for teachers to live on the Indian reservations.

Even though people want to make the argument that it costs more in their area to educate, and therefore they should have more money, oftentimes these are the areas with more money. There’s very little hard data on whether there is a genuine need there.

What people are concerned about is that if you create a system like this, which is state-driven and per-pupil, you eliminate the local incentive for people to invest in their local schools. Now, I believe that there ought to be differentials in how much money any given school has, but I would handle it through a tax credit for money that is given to the school rather than doing it through property taxes. So the differences in how much money is available ought to come through direct contributions to schools.

Clowes: So the state would provide a certain amount for each child and then people could provide additional support to their local school through donations?

Keegan: Yes. Although Arizona’s private tuition tax credits are held up in court right now, the public tax credit means that my husband and I every year can take a dollar for dollar credit for up to $200 that we give to our children’s school. I think that’s a better policy than trying to do it through property taxes with a large-scale, macro tax policy. Ironically, that’s what most people think of as local control, but it isn’t local control when one entity has the exclusive franchise over all the schools in an area. It’s also not a good system for taking us into the future in Arizona, because the majority of our growth now is in public charter schools, and they generally don’t have district boundaries.

Clowes: What do you see as the biggest hurdle that the school choice movement has yet to overcome?

Keegan: All of the hyperbole about school choice being unconstitutional is a huge hurdle and so it will be nice to have it cleared through the courts. The other hurdles come from the folklore of the way we pay for public schools. That folklore says that there is a pot of money that is divided up amongst all the schools in the district, and that when you add a new school the pot has to be divided up into one more piece. In other words, if you add a new option for children, you take money out of the public system–that’s the folklore. That’s ridiculous. We don’t do that because we fund on a per-student basis. Here in Scottsdale, we grow by 25,000 students a year. Our pot is always expanding every year.

Clowes: So the more students you have, the more money you get?

Keegan: Sure. We pay for a child’s education, we don’t pay for a school building. If a child chooses to go to the Catholic school down the street, we pay the Catholic school. Nothing happened to the school that they left–other than, apparently, they didn’t do a good enough job to induce that child to stay, in which case they don’t need the money. Misunderstanding how money moves in this system is so easily hijacked by hyperbole, mostly from the teachers’ unions. They do a masterful job of seducing people.

Clowes: One last question. Why do so many public schools perform so poorly?

Keegan: Because we don’t know what we want or we’re not courageous enough to say what a good education is. I think it is a national shame that we can’t sit down as a country and decide what facts children need to know in reading, writing, and math. Those are not political issues. The problem is: If we will not stand up and say,”This is reading, this is writing, this is mathematics, and this is science,” other folks will. Those of us who are conservative and wary about government intrusion have ceded this territory–in terms of what children need to know–to other people.

When there are no academic standards, or nobody has written down what teachers must teach, education gets taken over by fluff, such as self-esteem coursework, multicultural diversity coursework, and gender-equity coursework. The result is that you lose your core instruction in the foundations, and that all comes back on our children.