Straight Talk from Arizona: Want Bold Thinking about Schools? Meet Lisa Keegan, One of Arizona's 'Chicks in Charge.'(The Last Word)(Brief Article)

Article excerpt

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. …