Arizona, take the lead in educational equity

Written By: Alexis Polokoff

The allure of charter schools has hoodwinked many to think they increase equity by giving marginalized groups better school choices while increasing efficiency in fitting the right school to the right student. Theory does not translate to reality when it comes to charter schools. Data that reveal the racial disparities among student groups in different schools are not what is “naturally efficient.” These statistics are the result of information asymmetry, inaccessibility due to resource barriers (such as transportation and language), and charter cherry-pickers. Read Bergman and McFarlin’s “Education For All? A Nationwide Audit Study of School Choice” (2020) for more on these actions. 

The reality is that many of the best charter schools engage in manipulative enrollment actions, from who and how they promote enrollment, to telling parents of costlier students, “I just don’t think our school is the right fit for your child.” Due to charter schools sharing the same pool of state funding as district public schools, district public schools are left with less funding. When you look at who is left in the immensely underfunded and under-resourced public schools, you will find a greater number of students of color. These students are generally from families of low socioeconomic backgrounds and need more learning supports than their wealthier peers. Counterintuitively, these students receive an even smaller slice of the education funding pie had there not been charter schools to funnel away money. That is a form of institutionalized racism.

Here are a few questions to consider: How do people learn to accept and ignore systemic social problems? Where do people learn to stereotype and stigmatize others? When do people learn about their identities and role in society?

One system that plays a significant role in the answer to these questions is the education system. In spite of the enticing ideal of equal educational opportunity in the United States, inequities have run amuck through the system. Arizona’s education system does not fare well when it comes to educational equity. Some quick facts:

  • Arizona consistently remains in the bottom 5-10% of states when it comes to per pupil spending. 

  • Of all 50 states, Arizona has the highest percentage of students (around 17%) enrolled in charter schools.

  • White and Asian students attend charter schools at a higher rate than Hispanics.

  • In “rigorous” and “progressive” charter schools, Hispanic students are disproportionately represented at a low 30%.

  • Although only about 40% of Arizona’s students are white, white teachers make up 75% of the teacher demographic in the state. 

During a time of remote learning, increasing COVID-19 cases in Arizona, and an uncertain, new school year beginning in the fall, Arizona policymakers need to develop an education stimulus package for Arizona’s public education system that builds on existing district public schools and does not empower the inequitable charter movement. A policy window is open and Arizona legislators must act on it. 

This is the time to authentically and holistically invest in public education. Education funding must increase dramatically and be utilized effectively based on best practices in professional development, social and emotional learning supports, personalized learning, social work collaboration, and specialized staff. If we don’t, not only will the education system continue to segregate and decrease equitable learning for students in Arizona, but Arizona will face a steep economic plunge that will last at least until our current school-aged children are mid-career. 

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