Vouching for school reforms that Arizona really needs
Arizona Republic
Mar. 13, 2005
Jon Talton


Arizona faces the most serious competitive threats of its modern history, although they are cloaked by the mad housing market. A quality public education system is more fundamental to meeting them than venture capital, biotech or landing big corporate relocations.

Achieving it is well within our means.

Yet the Legislature's response is largely confined to pushing vouchers, which calls for providing taxpayer money to private schools.

Let's assume that the supporters are sincere idealists. They would bolster this view by fully disclosing any financial ties they have with organizations that might benefit from vouchers and making the program appear as more than a giveaway to middle-class families in the East Valley.

Even so, it's a bad idea for Arizona.

Voucher success stories from Milwaukee and elsewhere are based on breaking the power of "greedy" teachers unions and "race-baiting" politicians who locked poor families in rotten inner-city schools.

Arizona's dilemma is fundamentally different, growing out of two root causes.

First, for decades the Legislature has failed to adequately fund schools even as student populations have soared and sprawl has aggravated costs. Once again, "growth" hasn't paid for itself.

Second, the federal government failed to pay for an unprecedented wave of low-skilled, non-English-speaking immigrants, lured here by the low-wage jobs that keep the economy afloat. This would have required congressional representatives who do more than pontificate about Iraq on Fox News.

The result is a train wreck of public education, which has only been worsened by fetishes such as charter schools.

It doesn't matter that a few suburban school districts do well. A few fortunate bricks may survive a burning house.

It is the overall outcome of education that will determine how well Arizonans compete in the knowledge economy and whether opportunity and living standards can be raised. Here, by every objective measure, Arizona has been lagging for years.

An overall high-quality education system attracts talent and high-end companies. These - not cheap land and low-priced labor - are the essential elements for the future.

Sensible, mainstream solutions come from the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona, with its "Lead With Five" report:

 Provide all-day kindergarten for all.

 Prepare and recognize teachers for high performance.

 Create smaller schools or "schools within schools."

 Reduce class size in lower grades.

 Provide one-on-one tutoring and other extra help for struggling students.

These do not necessarily require more taxes. They do call for different thinking.

It's a mad world, made worse by ideologues of all stripes and the destructive tendencies of postmodern capitalism.

The desire of some to separate themselves behind suburban walls, gates and non-public schools is understandable. And to imagine that somehow they have earned a fortunate segregation strictly by their own work and virtue and the devil take the rest.

But this is suicide for a free society based on mutual obligation, and for a state that hopes to navigate the 21st-century economy.

It's time for the business leadership to step up and finally get serious about the future of all Arizona children.

Reach Talton at jon.talton@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8464.