Tale of Two Districts: Parents Fleeing Phoenix Union Turns K-12 Funding Narrative on its Head

Tale of Two Districts: Parents Fleeing Phoenix Union Turns K-12 Funding Narrative on its Head

Since 1994, when Arizona passed legislation to allow students to “open enroll” in a district school outside their boundary, families have been taking advantage of the power of school choice.

Open enrollment’s popularity is evident when you consider approximately half of Arizona kids do not attend their designated district school.  Of these migrating students almost half of them are choosing one district school over another. 

Recently, the Arizona Republic wrote a story about hundreds of parents waiting in line for up to 36 hours outside Sunnyslope High School with the hope of capturing a slot for their child. The Glendale Union District operates on a ‘first come, first register’ basis, and parents were not going to risk missing out on the opportunity to get their kid into this high-ranking school.    

This should be recognized for what it is: evidence that school choice works.  No longer are children trapped in underperforming schools by virtue of their zip code, parents are free to exercise their right to vote for their preferred school with their feet, and schools are getting market feedback on the quality of their product.

Yet, the AZ Republic gets the narrative all wrong:

“Educational inequality continues in Arizona despite a 2018 teacher strike that pushed Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature to give educators a three-step, 20% raise that will conclude this year. Even with tens of millions more in tax dollars going to Arizona public schools, the state remains among the bottom five for educational funding.”

The implication being made is that parents are camping outside of Sunny Side high school to flee the Phoenix Union District because of lack of funding and “educational inequality”. This story proves exactly the opposite!

According to the state Auditor General, Phoenix Union High School District (PUSD) received $13,853 per student. If Phoenix Union was its own state it would be #15 in the country in per pupil funding. By any metric they do not qualify as an “underfunded” district.

By contrast, Glendale Union receives $10,385 per student. Think about that: every parent lining at SunnySlope is willing to take $3,500 less to educate their child. 

It’s easy see why parents are willing to forfeit the extra funding after comparing the performance of the two districts. According to the Arizona Department of Education, only 4 Schools in Phoenix Union (28%) are rated an A or a B.  Six others are a C and four a D. State assessment scores corroborate these ratings with only about 20 percent of PUSD students passing math, English and science.  Glendale scores double and even triple these statistics when it comes to science testing. 

You can’t blame demographics either. Poverty rates are similar in both districts, and Phoenix has much smaller class sizes (17.7) than Glendale (21.6). The bottom line is the district that should have a distinct advantage is failing to compete.   GUSD is simply producing better academic results with less money.  Families in the area are savvy enough to understand this.

As for educational inequality, the only unfairness that exists in this situation is an entrenched school financing model that allows under-performing districts to receive the more funding (and be rewarded for this failure) than successful ones. Perhaps these parents should be able to take a portion of the $3,500 they lose when they relocate. That would help address funding inequality in a hurry. It could also go toward helping expand capacity in Glendale so that parents don’t have to camp out for days in the hopes of providing their child with a better education.

But don’t expect the education establishment or their media enablers to support any real reform. Even when all of the facts point toward the need to reward success and tying reforms to funding, they will never abandon their ‘throw money at the problem’ narrative.