PROPORTIONAL GAINS – CHARTER GROWTH WITHIN SCHOOL DISTRICT BOUNDARIES, PART II
What does the growth of Arizona’s charter school movement mean for local control? School choice (in its broadest definition) decreases the number of voters with an immediate investment in the passage of local taxation questions because these parents no longer have a direct benefit from passing a bond and override in their local school district. Likewise, the parents of students attending a school district via open enrollment cannot vote for a bond and override that will benefit their child directly.
With the continued and steady expansion of charter schools, Arizona now has school districts where the majority of students within district boundaries attend charter schools. Continuing our series on school enrollment trends, in this edition we explore the distribution of students choosing district or charter schools within an attendance area. We found that several district attendance areas now have parity in the population of students attending charter schools and district schools. The Coolidge, Queen Creek and Colorado City School Districts all have seen tremendous charter school growth over the past decade (see our last blog) and now roughly an equal number of students are enrolled in charter schools as district schools within these districts’ boundaries.
FIGURE 1 – 2015 ENROLLMENT (ADM) FOR DISTRICT AND CHARTER SCHOOLS IN SELECT ATTENDANCE AREAS
Figure 1 shows charter and district school enrollment numbers by geographical attendance area (elementary district boundaries in this case). For this analysis, high schools–both district and charter–were mapped to elementary attendance areas because elementary districts provide a more granular frame of reference than high school district boundaries. Where districts do not have a unified system of elementary level and high school level schools, both attendance areas are noted in the table above.
The interactive map below allows us to take a closer look at the Phoenix area, examining which Valley communities have seen the greatest proportional gains in student enrollment in charter schools. The southeast Valley as a region has seen the greatest proportion of student enrollment in charter schools, with Queen Creek and Coolidge School Districts now enrolling less than half of the students attending school in their attendance areas. That is, these districts no longer contain a majority of students (and their families) who are tied to the local school district governance and decision-making structure.
MAP 1 – PROPORTION OF STUDENTS IN CHARTER SCHOOLS BY ATTENDANCE AREA
(Click on an attendance area in the map above to see the FY2015 details)
Arizona, like most states, grants households with school-age children a free and appropriate public education based on the district’s boundaries in which the household is located. Additionally, Arizona law allows families the option to attend public schools of their choice (district or charter), so long as seating capacity is available and parents are able to transport their student. Despite this flexibility, school district attendance areas still serve as real and consequential boundaries for political and planning purposes as well as the taxation of households. Though district boundaries and school addresses are fixed locations, families are clearly exercising their freedom of choice within and between attendance areas. These data suggest that significant numbers of families choose to send their students to both charter and neighboring district schools rather than the default of their home’s neighborhood school district.
Why is this finding important?
When the public registers to vote they are asked to participate in governance and taxations issues related to the school district that they are assigned based on the location of their home. Families choosing charter schools or district schools outside of their home attendance area are not afforded direct say in taxation and governance decisions for the school district or charter where they choose to send their children. At the same time an increasing number of Arizona families are exercising the proverbial “vote with their feet” with respect to their school of choice, their voting rights are still restricted to their local school district’s elections. The only exception applies to statewide initiatives, such as Proposition 301 and the recently passed Proposition 123, that are not restricted based on local school district affiliation.
There is a presumption (or at least a common perception) that local district elections provide for strong local control and governance because of the commitment of the voting citizenry which has historically included the voting parents of children who attended their local public schools. These voting parents have been critical to this system as they theoretically had a vested interest in directly supporting their child’s public education.
“Local investment is potentially at jeopardy given these voters no longer have a direct, vested interest in the outcome of elections on their neighborhood schools.”
These data suggest that perhaps this system of local investment is potentially at jeopardy given these voters no longer have a direct, vested interest in the outcome of elections on their neighborhood schools. In other words, school choice (in its broadest definition) decreases the number of voters with an immediate investment in the passage of the bond and override because neither the parents of open enrollment students nor charter schools have a direct benefit from passing the bond and override in their local school district. Likewise, the parents of students attending a school district via open enrollment cannot vote for a bond and override that will benefit their child directly.
It should be noted that the number of students choosing to attend other districts schools through open enrollment is presumed in this blog, and the actual count of students is not reported through existing state data sources. Anecdotally, some districts report that they receive more than 10 percent of their students from other school districts. In order to fully understand the impact of the state’s open enrollment statutes on school districts’ total enrollment additional data is necessary. To date, there is no publicly available information that reports open enrollment numbers or any way to infer this information from available data.
Open enrollment to all schools (charter school and district schools) outside of home attendance areas raises questions about how Arizona citizens can best support, define and participate in the kind of school systems they choose to send their children. The free movement of the Arizona public school student body has implications for our school finance system as well as our role as citizens in the governance of our schools. With the flagging ties to local control of funds and charter schools’ complete dependence on statewide general revenue funds, it seems that reform to the school finance system that funds schools based on school district boundaries and the ability to pass local taxes is warranted.
 Average Daily Attendance from Arizona Department of Education. Attendance areas for charter schools were assigned using the Arizona District Locator, http://azredistricting.org/districtlocator/
For more on the policy effects of school choice, see The distance between desk and home: the policy and finance implications of school choice policies