U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz) has fired the latest shot in the public vs. charter and private school battle, introducing a bill on Tuesday that would offer vouchers to Native American students who want to choose alternate methods of education.
The Native American Education Opportunity Act would provide students with an Educational Savings Account (ESA) and deposit $8,000 per year into that account, which students could use for private schools, private online programs, tutoring, or other educational services.
“This bill gives Native American families and their children the freedom to choose alternative educational services other than the ones currently provided by the Bureau of Indian Education,” Biggs said in a press release.
The bill, which would also allow Tribes and the BIE to approve and fund charter schools on Tribal land, is endorsed by fellow Reps. Paul Gosar and Debbie Lesko (both R-Ariz), as well as the Navajo Nation.
Whether “school choice,” as Biggs calls his proposal, is the solution is up for debate. Teachers unions and education advocates have opposed the concept, which they say guts the public school system and turns education into a for-profit enterprise.
The evidence seems to back up that claim. A ground-breaking 2018 investigative report from the Arizona Republic examined Arizona’s charter school system and uncovered the profiteering at play in the state.
The problem Biggs is trying to solve is a real one; there are currently 54 schools in Arizona overseen by the federally-funded BIE — more than any other state — and these schools have made headlines for their poor performance.
In fact, regardless of whether they attend BIE schools or Arizona public schools, the state’s 55,000-plus Native students face more obstacles than most students. Native students are critically under-resourced and as a result, trail behind other students on test scores and graduation rates, and also have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, according to the state’s 2018 Indian Education Annual Report
Over the last decade, as Arizona’s school system has been decimated by post-recession budget cuts and a surge of teacher vacancies, the state has also experienced a boom in its charter school system. More than 190,000 Arizona students were enrolled in charter schools in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
That figure represents 17% of the state’s total public school enrollment, which is by far the largest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools of any state in the country. In contrast, only 6% of students nationwide attend charter schools.
This surge has been part of a concerted effort — primarily by Republicans and their allies, such as the Koch brothers — to enact charter school-friendly laws and push the idea of school choice.
Proponents of school choice, like Biggs, argue it gives families the chance to send their children to better schools, which can be especially compelling if the family’s local public schools are failing. School choice programs also frequently include vouchers, which allow parents to avoid having to pay for their child’s education twice over: once with tax dollars and once with charter or private school tuition. Instead, they can utilize the voucher to redirect public school tax dollars towards their child’s private or charter school education.
But therein lies the key issue for critics of school choice; it diverts funding from public schools and makes it even harder for struggling schools to improve. In Arizona, where public schools are already struggling, that makes for an even bigger problem.
Arizona currently has the 13th friendliest environment for charter schools in the nation, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ 2019 rankings, a two-spot jump from 2018.
The state’s ranking could continue to improve if measures like Biggs’ legislation are enacted into law.