There Will Always be a Scottsdale Unified

(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

8 Responses to There Will Always be a Scottsdale Unified

  1. Michael J Norton says:

    Being brilliant again today, Matt. (I say that because your blogpost hit on the same topic as ROSS this weekend and anyone who thinks like ROSS must be brilliant – not really – you know that but go with me here).

    Excess Capacity will never be restrained unless higher influences restore order. SUSD and Charters are locked in a death match to see who can build the most capacity the fastest.

    A while ago our AZ Legislators actually had a good idea about capacity. (Shocking, I know that, but true). I believe it was SB1100 that proposed a mandate that Public Schools be required to lease at fair market value any of their excess capacity to Charters.

    Perhaps that legislative genius falls under the heading of 1,000,000 chimpanzees accidentally typing Of War And Peace on their 1,000,000,000th try. But had that mandate been made, the current building craze in Scottsdale would have a completely different pattern.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Thx- the charter programs have wait lists, and the district has empty space. It does indeed seem like reasonable people should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial exchange.

    • Michael J. Norton says:

      You are almost 100% accurate. Check the Wait List situation for Cheyenne Traditional School (and its school scores on the AZ Merits tests for the last 3 years). A school with a history of “rigor” (I’m tiring of that word, but I’ll use it here). A school that raised its own excellent standards over the last four years with a truly inspirational leader in a Principal who came in as CTS started to flounder.

      It is fitting that Cheyenne’s 20th Anniversary year saw it lead the State for all public school K-8’s including those that moved to quasi-public/charter.

      It’s not a question of Charter vs. Public. It is a question of the shared commitment of 1,000 kids, 45 great teachers, an inspiring leader, and the parents who buy in and share the demand for the best that each kid can accomplish. You have to go hang out there for a day to understand. Walk in any classroom without notice and watch some magic going on.

      SUSD knows the equation to compete with Charters. It’s called Cheyenne Traditional School – the one public school in the heart of all the Charters in Scottsdale that has a waiting list every year and has had for over a decade.

      I admit, in fairness, that I’m biased. My two girls have attended since 3rd grade when they cleared the wait list. I’m on the Site Council. I unabashedly praise our Principal to anyone who will listen. But I am also the harshest critic that SUSD has (when they deserve it). I don’t dole out praise lightly.

      Come visit – I’ll get you in. It’s something you need to see to believe.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Reasonable People? Yeah, good band. I heard them open for Higher Influences Restore Order in 2007.

      • Michael Norton says:

        Greg, skepticism is appropriate here. There is no structure now in place that does anything to reduce the frenzy to outbuild the competition. The School Building Boom is even fueled by the State’s new $300M fund to facilitate more Charter construction.

        The Charter school construction concept flows from the conclusion that there is no available space for more “excelling schools” which is a farce. Of course there is space. The relatively empty public schools have plenty of space.

        The Charter building boom is not fueled by a noble desire to educate students. It is fueled by a race to grab the state funds now foolishly allocated to “free buildings for Charter Shareholders”.

      • Matthew Ladner says:


        It isn’t the case that districts have (yet) been forthcoming on cooperating with charters on facilities. I volunteered on the Ducey transition and when the authorities revealed the extent of empty district space it was quite a shock. By statute the SFB was not allowed to consider even massive amounts of empty space if it was just across a district line. There was a large amount of overbuilding in the districts during the boom.

        At the time there were 10 vacant facilities in Tucson and 100 statewide, but even that was dwarfed by the amount of underutilized space in districts. The charter sector by contrast has thousands of kids on wait lists.

        I am interested in visiting Cheyenne. The problem is that in any rational system Scottsdale Unified would be replicating Cheyenne as fast as possible. If you have ever read the history of Saturn however it is horrible to learn that all of GM’s other brands actively undermined Saturn as did (eventually) the UAW. Large bureaucratic organizations with encrusted special interests in other words have a hard time behaving rationally. External pressure is needed and in AZ K-12 charters and pvt Choice are providing it.

      • Michael Norton says:

        I’m slightly across the line from you re: Charters. I am an enormous advocate for Public Schools. I also support the decision of my neighbors and friends to choose Charter schools for their children (sometimes/often splitting their kids between a Charter for one and a Public for the other).

        Unlike many, I abhor the financial waste associated with duplicative campus networks. Those Charter schools are not paid for from the coffers of the Charter founders. They are paid for from AZ State taxes. I am amazed that supposedly conservative taxpayers tolerate the creation of wealth through commercial land portfolios funded by taxpayers – but that’s another story.

        There is more than enough capacity within SUSD’s existing network to support 3-5 more Charters. SUSD should be called upon by our voters to lease that capacity to any Charter that wants it. That would stop the overbuilding insanity. It would also bolster the M&O budgets of SUSD – reducing Overhead Burden and adding Lease Revenue. The financial implications for Scottsdale Schools would be something the State could duplicate after we show how it can and should be done.

        As for Cheyenne Traditional, after 20 years of financial neglect (abuse), the new leadership of SUSD finally recognized CTS’ remarkable performance. Not only throwing some crumbs CTS’ way, but also trying to duplicate it at Pima – Now Pima Traditional School. It may be too late to save some of the rapidly shrinking schools that are in the heart of the Charter invasion of Scottsdale. But SUSD has committed to competing at the highest level, rather than just shoving its collective heads in the sand and begging the Charters to go away.

        Consider this – with a sprinkling of financial support, Cheyenne Traditional School can and soon will beat Great Hearts at its own game. BASIS has moved itself within competitive reach, too, now that it opened its doors to 1,100 instead of gatekeeping it has taken on a full segment of the student population.

        The day CTS challenges GHA and BASIS to catch up will be the greatest day in Scottsdale’s history. And it is coming. Watch it happen.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Bring it on! I am loving it.

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