(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Here on the JPGB I’ve been keeping an eye on Scottsdale Unified, as the district makes for an interesting microcosm of several issues in parental choice. In Arizona’s relatively liberal charter laws, Scottsdale parents have taken a shine to some of our home-grown charter schools.
To the extent that parents care about test scores, those charters do very well on everything from PISA (eat our dust South Korea) to AZMerit, to the Arizona Board of Regents tracking of post-graduate results. A 2012 report of the Arizona Auditor general found Scottsdale Unified at only 65% capacity, and this despite taking in thousands of open enrollment students from out of district. Judging from the wait lists of these schools, some (well deserved) philanthropic support could force Scottsdale Unified to close additional campuses. As it is, there is a multi-building 127,000 sq ft. campus that sits vacant, and the Auditor General concluded that Scottsdale Unified could move $3.8m per year into the classroom if it would make more rational use of facility space. “Everything is grim, we need to dial back this parental choice business before we destroy public education!” goes the battle-cry of many.
That’s a scary story, but fortunately it is demonstrably wrong.
We should judge school districts by outcomes above all else. On this front we have three years of comparable academic data for Scottsdale Unified from AZMerit, and just like the statewide trend results in 2016 were better than 2015, and the results from 2017 were better than 2016. A survey conducted by a demographer on behalf of Scottsdale Unified identified “academic rigor” as a major issues for transfers out of Scottsdale Unified. Scottsdale Unified might have indeed faced big problems without academic improvement, but lo and behold that improvement is underway.
Things look to be trending in the right direction academically. They might do so at a faster pace if those $3.8m were directed into the classroom, but that is a decision for the school board to make. Scottsdale Unified gets more total public funding per pupil than their charter school competitors, nothing is stopping them from moving into a more choice-based system similar to what we see in districts such as Phoenix Union and Vail through specialized magnet programs. The era of big-box schools appearing at the top of performance lists, even in highly demographically advantaged areas, has drawn to a close. Perhaps some of those 1/3 empty Scottsdale Unified big boxes could become full campuses hosting multiple schools.
The Great Recession took a toll on Arizona’s finances. Eventually real cuts to K-12 funding hit. Enrollment growth stalled for the first time since WWII, and high-quality charters seized the opportunity to obtain properties. It was a rough time to be running a school district. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all indicators show that Arizona has a better performing public school system now than ever. Enrollment growth, funding per pupil and most important of all academic performance are all up.
It would be mathematically impossible for Arizona to have been leading in statewide NAEP gains without the improvement of district scores. We need to keep it going, but AZMerit indicates that it kept rolling after the 2015 NAEP. #WeneedtoWinMOARRRRR