The Quagmire Called “School Choice”

Picture of Hayley Stenger

Hayley Stenger

Picture of Hayley Stenger

My journey as an educator started in 2010, at the end of the Great Recession. I was excited to pass my love of learning to future generations of children. I took a job at a local charter school. I had a class of 32, a completely average number in Arizona, and slightly larger than when I’d attended Arizona schools as a child. The school boasted about its low class size, especially compared to the local public school district.

Initially, I was excited about my classroom and felt lucky to have a job. I quickly became unhappy, though. Students were in rows with a traditional style curriculum. Additionally, we would, “teach to the top”. If a child was not “the top” or struggled with traditional-style learning, the administration hinted that the school was not for them. It was suggested that perhaps they were better suited to public school.

As a teacher, I struggled with this. My job was to teach all my students, not just the ones who would score highest on the standardized tests or fit into a specific kind of education and teaching. The local district had been impacted heavily by the recession and was losing funding. Many parents fled to the local charter school.

At the same time, not all students were welcomed at the charter school. Working parents struggled to provide twice-a-day transportation for their children, and a strict dress code – which included short hair on boys – discouraged the local Native American students from attending. At the time, I found it difficult to express what I felt was wrong with my job, but I remember feeling that something was wrong. What I had dreamed of doing as a teacher wasn’t happening. I decided to leave education.

In 2017 – a few years after becoming a parent myself – I attended a presentation from Save Our Schools AZ, and my memories as an educator flooded back. I hadn’t realized that my experience was so prevalent across our state. I learned that the state legislature was moving money away from public district schools and into charter and private schools under the guise of “school choice”. As public schools were losing funding, district schools and teachers were becoming overburdened. I learned that charter schools were paid more per student than district schools, and that legislators with financial stakes in schools were supporting legislation that lined their own pockets. I learned that Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) were creating an unbalanced school system, benefiting private schools to the detriment of the public schools.

I also learned that, after the Arizona Supreme Court had determined that private school vouchers violated the separation of church and state, legislators had created a work-around, giving money directly to parents instead of schools in the form of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs.

When I realized how unfair Arizona’s school system was, and that access to education was not equally available to every student, I got involved. I volunteered for Save Our Schools AZ, and I taught the basics of our system to others around our state. And it worked. In every election voters chose to support public education, increase funding, and oppose vouchers (Prop 305 and Prop. 207).

Every time, the legislature and governor went to work to undermine our efforts, cutting funding and increasing ESA vouchers.

In 2020, as my first child entered kindergarten, with Arizona already ranked near the bottom in education, I watched the governor promoting private schools. I saw funds going to schools that not every student could access. I worried about AZ education. How far could it fall? What would happen to my kids? Would they be able to compete with the rest of the nation? Would they be able to stay in the public schools? Or would they be pushed into schools that only accepted certain demographics? What more could “school choice” do to hurt us? It kept me awake at night.

Finally, after living our entire educational lives in Arizona, my husband and I decided to move our family to Northern Virginia. Once there, we attended our daughter’s Meet the Teacher event, and found only 18 desks in her classroom. I asked if this was a “covid class,” set up for social distancing, and the teacher was confused. This was a regular class – nearly half the size of the class I taught in Arizona.

The state of Virginia is better at funding their schools – for now.  It isn’t splitting the resources between several systems of tiered education – for now. The quality of the public schools is a point of pride for my new neighbors – for now.

I left a state where “school choice” has left millions of children unable to access a quality education. I’ve seen firsthand the inequitable quagmire that Arizona’s failed experiment has created. It doesn’t have to be this way – we can still save public schools by fighting these destructive programs and policies.

Do you live in Virginia?

The schools that Haley’s family enjoys are under fire from Arizona-like privatization bills.

Share This Post


Recent Stories


don’t miss a post

Sign up to receive our content to your inbox

latest tweets