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Goldwater Institute: Limousine liberal arguments about school choice are getting tired

Tom Danehy, in a series of screeds, has called the Goldwater Institute crackpots, hypocrites, gluttons, fools, whores and "neocons."

Whoa there, Tom: neocon?!? Them's fightin' words!

Actually, I have been on Tom's radio program a couple of times, and he's a nice guy when not on a rant. Spitting epithets does not substitute for sound reasoning, however, and doesn't solve problems. And we've got a rather large problem with education in Arizona: 48 percent of fourth-graders in Arizona public schools are functionally illiterate.

Since Tom thinks I'm a "crackpot," I'm glad to provide external validation for the above figure. Those are the U.S. Department of Education's numbers, not mine. Google "NAEP," click on the button that says "State Profiles," click Arizona on the map, and look up the definition of the term "below basic."

Read it, and weep. Research shows that kids failing to master basic literacy fall further and further behind with each passing grade, and drop out in droves starting in middle school.

Tom's chief complaint with Goldwater Institute education policy research seems to be our recommendations for school choice. He argues that we have plenty of school choice, because any person can pay for their child to attend private schools out of their own pocket. Tom is right--school choice is widespread, if you can afford it.

Those, like Tom, who have the means to select good suburban schools, or pay private school tuition, do exercise choice in education. Those families not so fortunate, however, all too often find their children effectively trapped in dysfunctional schools with poor teaching and high dropout rates.

I wonder if Tom thinks we should eliminate the federal Pell Grant, or programs such as Medicaid. Following his line of reasoning, if he paid his own college tuition and pays his own medical insurance, the answer would be "yes." The essence of Tom's reasoning seems eerily close to the slang expression, "I've got mine; it sucks to be you." Tom opposes school choice programs for the disadvantaged while admitting he sent his own children to a private school.

While Tom is free to carp from the sidelines, Arizona policymakers have serious problems to address. The Census projects that Arizona's under-18 population will be twice as large in 2030 as it was in 2000 (2.6 million compared with 1.3 million). Overcrowding is a quantity problem, and a serious one. Our quality problem, however, is even more severe. Expanding school choice could help alleviate both.

Despite Tom's armchair critique that charter schools are "mediocre," careful research shows that Arizona's charter-school students statewide learn more each year than public school students. In addition, Harvard researchers have found charter schools improve the performance of nearby public schools in Arizona. So tell me, Tom, what's not to like about schools that spend less, deliver more and improve the schools around them?

Charter schools have absorbed only a third of the increase in the public-school population since the law passed. Like traditional schools, charters cannot keep up with demand and alone are not enough to address Arizona's overcrowding and quality issues. There is capacity in the private school sector, and we need to take advantage of it.

Arizona has moved past debating whether or not to have school choice. The debate is now over what forms choice should take and how quickly.

We live in a state that spends more than $8,000 per pupil; almost half of our fourth-graders cannot read; and the state can no longer afford to pave parking lots at new schools. If we continue to follow this model, 2030 will be a lot rougher than today.

From what I can infer, Tom is satisfied with this situation. We're not. He has argued that the failure of children is purely their parents' fault. Personally, I do not think it is unreasonable to expect schools to teach a fourth grader to read with five years and $40,000 in taxpayer revenue.

Whether you are a progressive, conservative, libertarian or vegetarian, few Arizonans can be satisfied with this state of affairs. We can and must do better.

Editor's Note: It should be noted that Danehy's kids went to public schools, not private, as Ladner says.

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