Pop Quiz Hot Shot- What do you do with Arizona’s high school mess?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Amid the gloom of the Arizona Board of Regents putting a sawed off shotgun into the mouth of the public high schools of the state and pulling the trigger release of a report tracking the college completion rates of Arizona public high-school students were a few items of note. First, just eyeballing of the top 10 schools reveals that 6 of them are either charter or magnet schools. The top rated school, University High in Tucson, is a magnet that requires an entry exam and minimum GPA. The school that served as the origin for the Great Hearts network of schools comes in 2nd place, narrowly behind University High, BASIS Tucson makes the list, as does the Arizona School for the Arts, Foothills Academy and the Arizona Academy of Science and Technology.

Ok, so that is about it on the good news front.

If you rank the schools from the bottom up, sure enough you find charters down there too. I’m happy to have the State Board nuke these schools when they come up for renewal, or potentially even earlier if some sort of transparent process is used and the river runs both ways for charter and district schools. Where pray tell do you put these kids? It is not like there are an abundance of high-quality public options here in the cactus patch.

So what should a state do when it has a grim future staring it in the face? HALF of the high-schools in the state had 5% or fewer kids earn 4 year college degrees. Yes I agree that not everyone wants or needs to go to college and that Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs all dropped out of college, etc. etc. etc. but let’s get real- 5% or fewer represents catastrophic failure.  It’s hard to become a Gates/Dell/Jobs impatient super-genius entrepreneur if you, um, can’t read at grade level or do a some math. The NAEP reveals that only about a third of Arizona 8th graders are achieving at those levels.

I doubt there is any one solution. I however remain open to suggestions and no, pack up the kids and flee in panic is not an option. At least, not yet.

I’m starting to think about a Recovery School District should be a part of the solution. Many of those 230 high-schools with 5% or fewer of their kids earning college degrees after six years were paid for by the Arizona School Facilities Board. These were state dollars spent for the purpose of educating students. A great many of those schools seem to have not gotten around to that part yet. Perhaps the state of Arizona should take them back and lease them out at very favorable rates to anyone with a good plan and a good track record of educating students.  Perhaps lease to own contracts could be formulated to give the buildings to operators who meet academic growth goals.

The new schools could be constituted with charters with shorter renewal time horizons (say five years) and the current group of students could have a guaranteed spot in the new school if they desire it.  Obviously not all will succeed, but what do we have to lose? You can’t get much worse than 5% or lower, and like the Louisiana Recovery School District, it gives you the opportunity to replace failed teams on a regular basis.  I would be happy to follow New Zealand’s example and have the schools run as non-profits with elected boards of parents with children enrolled in the school.

In other words, why not leverage educational assets in order to conduct a global talent search for people with a track record of successfully educating children and running schools? At this point I would trade away the Grand Canyon for a couple of hundred high-quality schools.  Why not give people the chance to earn school buildings that are currently being horribly mismanaged to the detriment of children and the broad public interest?




3 Responses to Pop Quiz Hot Shot- What do you do with Arizona’s high school mess?

  1. Matthew Ladner says:

    Why not avail yourself to under-performing public assets to build new? Facilities are the biggest challenge facing our high quality charter schools, and we’ve got already built facilities all over the place doing little more than warehousing kids.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Fair point – you just have to make sure the “new” schools are really new, not just the same broken institutions handed off to new management.

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