How to Turn Your Leafy Suburban School Districts into Defacto CMOs

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Tom Patterson on Friday. Patterson was a crucial legislative supporter of both the Arizona charter and scholarship tax credit laws that passed in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Dr. Patterson related to me that in his first run for the state legislature in 1988, he attended a candidate forum at Arcadia High School, a Scottsdale Unified School District school to which I am zoned. At the time he was campaigning on an open-enrollment law (which came to pass in the 1990s), an idea that his opponent denounced as “crazy.”

A close look at Scottsdale today demonstrates that Dr. Patterson was crazy- crazy like a fox. In fact, without open enrollment Scottsdale Unified would be in trouble today. I came across an interesting power point presentation prepared by demographers for the Scottsdale Unified School District in 2014. Lots of interesting stuff in the document but when I came across the figure that Scottsdale Unified takes in 4,000 out of district transfers, it occurred to me that this was probably a large enough transfer population to get Scottsdale Unified to compare favorably to the state’s larger charter management organizations. Sure enough:

4,000 out of district transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in the state, if it were a CMO. Arizona law requires districts to adopt open enrollment policies, but gives district schools an free hand in deciding which students to accept.

Sadly no one collects statewide data on open enrollment these days, but my spidey-sense tells me that it is underrated here in the Cactus Patch. Based upon a report from the Arizona Auditor, Scottsdale should have a fairly acute interest in open enrollment transfers, as the Arizona Auditor General reports that the district was using 65% of facility capacity in 2012:

The higher cost was primarily caused by the District maintaining a large amount of excess school building space, which was likely not needed because many of the District’s schools operated far below their designed capacities. In fiscal year 2012, Scottsdale USD had total school building capacity of about 38,000 students but only had about 25,000 students enrolled, or in other terms, the District was using about 66 percent of its building capacity. Maintaining more building space is costly to the District because the majority of its funding is based on its number of students, not the amount of square footage it maintains. Had Scottsdale USD maintained a similar amount of school building space per student as its peer districts averaged, it could have saved approximately $3.8 million, monies that the District otherwise potentially could have spent in the classroom. Although the District closed one school campus at the end of fiscal year 2014, in light of its large amount of excess building capacity, the District should continue to review options to further reduce excess space.

Factors other than choice impact Scottsdale enrollment, including an aging population, higher home prices, etc. but choice is playing a role. The demographic report noted that while Scottsdale gained 4,000 students from open-enrollment that they had 9,000 school age children living within their district boundaries not attending Scottsdale Unified schools. Choice programs in other words interact with each other in a dynamic fashion. Many prominent figures in the parental choice movement have argued that Scottsdale kids “already have school choice” but it turns out that when you give them more meaningful school choice, you free up spots for other kids.

The report also includes an analysis of transcript requests as a method for tracking where kids are going. About half of requests came from charter schools-with BASIS and Great Hearts in the lead, another 29% came from private schools, and the remainder came from online schools.

The Arizona Republic wrote up a story about the presentation of the report to the school board, which included a question from a member of the school board as to why an online charter was the largest single recipient of transfer requests when the district had started their own online learning program. “These are kids who, essentially, most of them would be dropping out,” came the reply from an Associate Superintendent.

Two notes on this comment- an online charter was not only the largest recipient of transcript requests, another such school was the third largest single recipient. Not the best look if they were “kids who were going to drop out anyway.” Second, the possibility of negative selection bias may call for a far more careful look at the results of online charters. “Demographic twins” may or may not work out in a rough and ready fashion when we don’t suspect selection bias, but when we do have reason to suspect it..but I digress.


The overall picture in Arizona is one marked by robust accountability (losing students and money) rather than double secret probation accountability. The state turned off the A-F accountability system two years ago to revamp it in light of new tests. Word has reached my ears that the State Board recently had the opportunity to consider a formal written proposal to include student vegetable consumption in the school A-F grading formula.

No I’m not making that up. I also heard they decided not to move forward with the proposal. I’m comforted by the widespread use of the Greatschools website, which has their own ranking system and parent reviews. Overall the Cactus Patch has a vibrant bottom up accountability system (vrai pas faux) while still having to go through the motions on what appears to these eyes to be a relatively dysfunctional system of normal compliance activities amounting to…I’m not sure just what.

So it is great to have Scottsdale Unified competing in the choice mix. It makes me happier to pay my taxes than I otherwise would be. Should Arizonans want still more parental choice?






7 Responses to How to Turn Your Leafy Suburban School Districts into Defacto CMOs

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Grading schools on vegetable consumption? Make sure you put plenty of ketchup on your fries, kids!

    That one’s for the old timers.

    So what is Scottsdale doing that drives away 9,000 students and attracts 4,000? Some kind of specialization going on here? Or are neighboring districts just worse?

  2. matthewladner says:

    Scottsdale is a district with a good reputation overall and some outstanding schools. They don’t seem to be losing a lot of their students to other districts, more to charters and private schools. The long wait lists at some of the active charter operators seems like a pretty clear market signal in terms of what parents want.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Do you think Scottsdale is reacting adaptively or just coasting at this point?

      • matthewladner says:

        That is a very good question. Yesterday I spoke to a friend who used to work in the district, and her view was that Scottsdale has aggressively pursued open enrollment transfers. I live in the district boundaries however and have yet to see anything that resembles a public campaign per se, but that could be because they have a more targeted approach (I live in the district but send my kids to charter schools and have yet to hear from them). So it could be that they feel like they could become more aggressive, especially if a few more charters open in the area.

  3. Mike G says:

    How much per pupil $ does Scottsdale get for the 4,000 kids? How does that compare to charter school per pupil in AZ?

    • matthewladner says:


      Statewide the average per pupil for districts was around $9,250 and about a thousand less per kid in charters. I’d have to consult with one of the three school finance gurus to know approximately how much Scottsdale gets per transfer student, but it would certainly include state and federal aid, and they have empty seats at a number of operating facilities.

  4. Michael J. Norton says:

    I can help with a little information here. For a long time SUSD fervently avoided answering the question of “where did those 9,000 kids go?” But the data is now bubbling up through a variety of sources including a newfound love of data at the SUSD District level itself.

    Charters, Privates and Parochials got most of those 9,000 kids. In one single year Great Hearts nabbed about 800 when it opened its new campus on Pima/Indian Bend and the Gain/Loss from SUSD to GHO was almost absolutely equal.

    Additionally a large block of the Northern half of the District expatriated to Paradise Valley where Gifted and Honors programs remained robust performers especially compared to the diluted Honors in Name Only stuff during Dr. Peterson’s tenure.

    2017-18 will be a pivotal year for SUSD. New Superintendent. New focus on rigor and accountability. Plus the excitement of a lot of new buildings from the $229 M Bond. But at the bottom line, either SUSD stops the enrollment drain or it ends up rebuilding twelve to thirteen of its nineteen K-5 and K-8 schools and closing the rest. The overhead burden of School and District based Admin and staff to support the far too empty buildings has put SUSD in the unenviable position of underpaying its teachers compared to its peers and also being the only large District in the State where Teachers are outnumbered by Non-Teachers.

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