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Sat, April 20

Talk of the Town: Putting kids first pays off for Arizona

When I was in elementary school, my family immigrated from Mexico to Phoenix. My brother and I spoke no English when we arrived, so in school, we worked hard to learn the language at the same time as all the other material. I was a curious, inquisitive kid but sitting behind a desk and being taught instead of actively learning was torture for me. I was bored out of my mind, got in trouble a lot, and quite frankly, I hated it.

For kids like me, the national statistics are sobering. On the latest NAEP assessment for math, Hispanic fourth-graders had an average score that was 22 points lower than that for white students. On the NAEP reading assessment, Hispanic fourth-graders had an average score that was 25 points lower than that for their White peers. And in 2015 Latinos in Arizona had one of the highest dropout rates of all ethnic and racial groups.

It makes me sad to think about so many students like myself; uninterested or falling behind or feeling ostracized, trapped in schools that are failing them due to circumstances beyond their control, like their zip code or their family’s financial situation.

But in Arizona, several years ago, lawmakers started to put kids first. They grounded their policies in the knowledge that every child learns differently, and governed with the belief that all students and their families should have the freedom to choose a quality education that meets their learning needs and encourages their unique “talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich,” as Thomas Jefferson put it.

And this approach is paying off.

Arizona now boasts five of the top 10 high schools in the nation. And Arizona students led the country in academic gains for math, reading, and science between 2009 and 2015. What’s more, these achievements occurred at a time of decreased funding during the great recession.

Charter schools, which cost $819 less per student than traditional public schools, have been a big contributor to Arizona’s educational success. The state’s 547 charter schools served 180,000 students during the 2016-17 school year. These schools allow teachers to innovate and custom tailor learning environments to fit the needs of their students.

What is most uplifting about this for me is that national studies have shown that charter schools close the learning gap for minority students. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University says, “learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.”

Greater educational freedom is improving lives throughout our state, especially for low and middle-income families. It also saves taxpayers money, which will become ever more critical as Arizona’s student population grows and the working-age population shrinks in proportion over the next several decades. Thanks to the educational reforms we’ve made, our state is set up for future financial success.

Carlos Alfaro is the Arizona Coalitions Director for The LIBRE Institute.

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