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January 27, 2010 [feather]
School choice in Arizona

From the Arizona Daily Star

Nearly 900 eighth-graders have left the Sunnyside Unified School District since 2006 to attend private or charter schools - costing the district about $3 million in state funding.
And the Tucson Unified School District - the largest in the city - has lost about 8,300 students to charters over five years - some 3 percent of its enrollment. Such losses would have cost the district an estimated $36 million in state funding, although officials say some of the students have returned.

TUSD has tried for years to find ways to stop the hemorrhaging - bulking up its niche programs, studying who's leaving for where, and advertising its extracurriculars to parents and students. Last year, the district budgeted almost $420,000 for school-choice exploration. The initiative encourages schools to transform, offering a special focus or learning model that would draw in and retain students.
Now Sunnyside is thinking about how to stop the losses.

Administrators have come up with a $213,300 plan to keep eighth-graders from leaving by loaning laptops this summer to qualifying students and enrolling them in a college-prep program. Teachers will receive laptops and the district will begin an online learning program and look into providing area families free Internet service.

It's telling that the school district is looking at college prep as an afterthought and a stopgap. And it's sad that the loan of a laptop (over the summer! when it will mostly used for surfing and social networking!) is supposed to counteract the schools' failure to do their jobs during the school year. But the kids leaving the district schools aren't thinking about laptops or afterthoughts--they and their parents are looking for "smaller class sizes, innovative teaching and assurances that their children will become college graduates."

The article offers some telling quotes from kids who have made the switch. Here's one: "I like the environment. It is really positive, and I feel teachers here really care about their students. They are not here just because it is a job," said Tapia, who is enrolled in honors English, economics and chemistry. "At Desert View I just felt like I was just another student, another number. There are teachers there who care, but I feel I get more one-on-one time with the teachers Alta Vista." Tapia plays on the volleyball team, serves on the student council, and belongs to the National Honor Society.

Arizona's school choice movement is 15 years old, and it's going strong. One quarter of all the state's public schools are charter schools. These schools have had strong success in boosting the educational achievement of underprivileged kids.

The "hemorrhaging" cited above is often described as a bad thing for public education. But that's a stasist way of looking at things. The kids who have left the district schools are finding schools where they can succeed. The district schools themselves are now smaller--and should be working harder at finding cost-effective ways to meet the needs of the kids who stay in them.

Meanwhile, the district schools are getting important feedback about what works and what doesn't--about what kids in the area need and what their parents want for them. And they are getting funding to help them adjust. I question the heavy emphasis on laptops and technology--while these things are important, they are not a substitute for excellent teachers, challenging courses, and personal attention--but the charitable side of me says, "This is an attempt to respond to much-needed competition--and if it doesn't work, the schools will know it soon enough as more kids will vote with their feet."

Thanks to reader Tom G. for the link.

posted on January 27, 2010 9:04 AM

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