FILE - Arizona high school

School buses at Pinnacle High School in north Phoenix.

(The Center Square) – Arizona, seen as the nation’s best state for parental empowerment and charter school innovation, acknowledges national School Choice Week in an academic year where the move from public to private schools has been pronounced.

Whether it be the hesitance of public schools to resume in-person learning or fears of COVID-19 keeping younger children out of class, Arizona’s public school systems are estimated by the Arizona Republic to have lost 50,000 students. 

That loss has ramifications for public school budgets estimated using total enrollment and reduced for those learning virtually. Gov. Doug Ducey, a proponent of school choice, proposes the estimated $389 million the state is likely to save from the enrollment drop to help students suffering learning gaps due to remote schooling to catch up. 

Meanwhile, Arizona’s private and charter schools saw hoards of parents seeking to enroll their children, many for the first time. 

“If we compare August 2019 to August 2020, we saw inquiries climb from 43/month to 146/month. Similarly, applications went from 11/month to 66/month,” said Geoffrey Brown, Superintendent, Northwest Christian School in Phoenix. “This is especially unusual because August is obviously extremely late in the admissions process.”

Northwest Christian is the largest private school in the state. Based in Phoenix, it serves about 1,500 students, at a high-end cost of more than $10,000 in tuition per year.

One of the more glaring differences between public and private schools in Arizona is the disparity of students allowed to fill classrooms.

In-person learning, something Northwest Christian and many other private schools have been offering since August, has become a political football between the state’s public schools and their teacher unions. Multiple districts have been forced to cancel classes after teachers and support staff coordinated to call in sick in numbers that make in-person learning impossible. Their teacher unions do not publicly support them since teacher strikes are illegal in Arizona. 

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said earlier this month that all schools should go back to remote learning until mid-January. 

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 5,321 new COVID-19 cases Monday, attributing one new death to the virus. That’s down from nearly 10,000 four days prior.

Brown, a proponent of school choice, said it was troubling to see so many public schools remain closed for as long as they have. 

“[M]y assumption is that public school families are in public schools because they have determined these to be the best educational vehicle for their unique children,” he said. “To see public schools close for such an extensive period of time means that educational freedom within our state was diminished for a period of time. And, when choice and freedom are diminished, the product suffers. I am more worried that, as a state, we are doing more harm to student learning within the state at large than we even realize.”

The Center for Education Reform gives Arizona top honors in charter school innovation and educational choice. Opponents of school choice programs say they sap valuable funds from public schools. Arizona consistently spends less per student than the national average.


Staff Reporter

Cole Lauterbach reports on Illinois and Arizona government and statewide issues for The Center Square. He has produced radio shows for stations in Central Illinois and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.