School choice now mainstream as near majority of students attend school outside the one assigned

By Eileen Sigmund

Does your child attend his or her assigned district school? If so, they’re nearly among the minority in Maricopa County.

That’s according to a surprising new analysis compiled by the non-partisan Center for Student Achievement and researchers at Yale University. The study found that nearly 1 in 2 K-8 students in Maricopa County don’t attend the district school to which they were assigned based on home address. The actual number is almost certainly higher as the analysis only looked at district and charter-school students, and didn’t take into account those who are homeschooled or attend private or online schools.

Simply put, “school choice” has gone mainstream in Arizona.

How the Analysis Was Done

As part of the analysis, lead Yale researcher Matthew Hom plotted student addresses across nine districts collectively serving more than 130,000 K-8 students in Maricopa County. These students represent approximately one-third of all district elementary school enrollment in the county.

Then, the Center for Student Achievement expanded this sample by combining enrollment for charter schools within the same geographic areas.

The results: Overall, the analysis found 47 percent of students attended a school other than the one to which they were assigned based on their home address. Results varied greatly across geographic areas. Student usage of school choice varied from as little as 29 percent in one attendance area to as high as 81 percent in another.

Why the Numbers Matter

For decades, our state has been a national leader in education freedom – the radical concept that parents know their own children best and should be empowered to select a school for them that is the right fit. Crazy, right?

The movement has flourished. Consider public charter schools, where enrollment is booming and reached a record 185,000 students statewide this year.

Yet, for too long, critics of school choice have tried to undermine the movement by labeling and dividing our families. Charter families over here. District families over there. Online. Homeschool. On and on it goes.

That’s why this new analysis is so important. It’s the first time we’ve gotten a comprehensive look at attendance patterns across Greater Phoenix and throughout the county. The results demonstrate the strength in our numbers and the degree to which a parent’s right to select his/her child’s school has become engrained in Arizona’s culture and fundamental to our education system.

We are the new norm.

Even among Maricopa County students that still opt for a district school, nearly 4 in 10 do not attend the district school to which they were assigned. Maybe they attend a district school closer to where their parents work. Or perhaps they prefer to attend a STEM, performing arts or other specialty school offered by the district.

The point is, parents have a choice. And, as the numbers demonstrate, a sizable number of them are exercising that authority.

No Turning Back

This is a good thing. Education freedom is the enemy of complacency and hopelessness. These parents are more likely to be active participants in their children’s education.

Of course, school choice is no choice at all without quality options. Hard work remains – among all types of schools – to bring more excellent classrooms to communities in need.

But, amid the rancor in today’s education debate, I take heart in these enrollment figures. They tell me the cynical efforts to roll back education freedom in Arizona will fail. We are too many. The societal trend toward consumer choice is too strong.

Our shared mission as education leaders, policymakers and parents is to ensure the choices available to this generation of Arizona students and the next are good ones.

This article was originally published in the Arizona Capitol Times on Nov. 17, 2017.