Straight Talk From Arizona

Phoenix--If George W. Bush wins, conservatives will be glad they failed to abolish the Department of Education. Surely he would have the wisdom to make Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's superintendent of Public Instruction, secretary of Education. That is, unless this July he has the audacity to roll the dice and make her his running mate.

Keegan, 40, supported the candidacy of John McCain, who, regarding straight talk, is a shrinking violet compared with Keegan, a Stanford-educated intellectual cactus who radiates prickly thoughts. Such as: "Everyone is complicit in trying to make the education system look good without merit." And: "This country is so content not to know the truth about its children, it's horrifying." And: "Those who believe there is 'still time' to reform our centrally planned educational systems ignore the fact that while there may be time, there is no reason to do so."

"Sometimes," she says, "when we ask Washington for help, we run a very real risk of getting it." About 45 percent of her employees work on compliance with regulations attached to federal aid--aid that amounts to only 6 percent of Arizona's education spending. The federal Charter Schools Expansion Act was influenced by the Arizona model, but such are the act's regulatory burdens, Keegan will not seek any funding under it. However, without such outside "help," Keegan is achieving a revolution-by-increments in schooling.

Elected to the Legislature in 1990 and to her current office in 1994, she now is part of Arizona's "chicks in charge" administration (the governor, secretary of State, treasurer, attorney general and president of the Senate are women). She has made Arizona the nation's pacesetter in establishing charter schools--independently operated public schools. They are public in that anyone can choose to attend them. And Keegan has two principles that, combined, dramatically redistribute power and establish accountability.

One principle is that money should be attached not to schools but to children--"when the children move," Keegan says, "the money moves." They are free to move within their school districts or between districts. This creates a market: parents become shoppers and schools become responsive to customers, lest the schools' money migrate to other schools, including charter schools.

Keegan's conservative credentials are impeccable, but her second principle scandalizes some conservatives: local control is the enemy of change driven by competition from charter schools. Her point is that requiring charter schools to be authorized by the local school district is like requiring Burger King to ask the local McDonald's for permission to sell hamburgers in a corner of the restaurant. Furthermore, "school districts represent a Soviet form of government. The money raised for the schools goes directly to the central office, where the staff makes the decisions regarding the services that each school within the district will receive."

Local control of charter schools is a recipe for charter schools so burdened with regulations and inhibitions that they are indistinguishable from, and no competitive threat to, the public-school status quo. (In Arizona's high school with the highest test scores, Tempe Preparatory Academy, only three of 22 teachers are certified, but all have a master's degree in their subject.) So Arizonans wanting permission to start a charter school can come to the state government. But they should not come expecting largesse. "Charter schools should go to the bank for start-up money," says Keegan. "Why gamble with public money?"

Today Arizona has 359 charter schools serving 45,000--5.6 percent--of Arizona's 800,000 pupils. But that is less than what Keegan considers a critical mass. She estimates that you need charter schools serving 15 to 20 percent of all children in order for the charter alternatives to exert "constant pressure" on the rest of the system. And if that is achieved, Arizona's system would probably evolve into school choice for all children.

The conservative principle of attaching money to children, not schools, brings Keegan to another position conservatives at first flinch from: equal sums should be attached to all children. Therefore, public schools should not be financed by property taxes. Such financing enables wealthy communities to generate more per-pupil spending, at lower tax rates, than poorer communities, which inevitably produces large disparities in schools' resources.

Charter schools, like all Arizona schools, are judged by state standards. Beginning with the class of 2002, Arizona high-school students must pass the AIMS (Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards) test. Last year only 12 percent of sophomores, class of 2001, passed all three sections of AIMS. Keegan also favors a longer school year (the U.S. average is 182 days; in Europe it is about 200), and year-round schooling with more but shorter breaks. That idea, and the rigor of AIMS, tests the public's claim that it wants more seriousness about education.

That claim should help Bush. Al Gore is on a short leash held by reactionary teachers' unions, which in 1996 sent more delegates to the Democratic convention than did California. Concerning America's most important question of equity, poor children trapped in rotten schools, many Democrats are simply disgusting. It is difficult to recall a more purely immoral act--tenacious defense of the strong against the weak--than the 1997 death-by-filibuster that Senate Democrats inflicted on a school-choice plan that would have allowed some children to escape from the plantation of the District of Columbia's failing public schools.

Keegan, who tartly says teachers unions "deserve to be ignored on so many levels," can make mincemeat of Democrats' defenses of their policies. She is moderately pro-choice on abortion and a disciple of Friedrich von Hayek, the late economist (Nobel prize, 1974) and philosopher of freedom whose "The Road to Serfdom" is, she says, the book that most influenced her. Bush would be wise to start now using his campaign to raise her profile as his kind of conservative, and to begin plagiarizing from her.