Craig Harris Throws His Other Shoe at the Charter Telescreen

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)


In our last two-minute hate, the Arizona Republic’s Craig Harris fretted about the founders of Basis buying a condo in NYC. In this exciting episode, Harris throws his shoe at charter school facility procurement.

So let me start by saying I’m not sure how other states handle charter school facility procurement laws, and I am curious about it. It is however worth noting that Arizona provides the best access to charter schools by zip code, per this Hamilton Project map from Brookings:

Hmm, maybe other states should be doing what Arizona is doing. Also worth noting is the fact that Arizona charters are not only more proximate than other states, they are also crushing the ball academically (statewide averages in blue, statewide charter averages where available in red):

Arizona just might be doing something right in this space, so my elephant says “Careful about ‘fixing’ something that is not broken.”

Here is the missing context from this article- construction firms make profit from both the construction of charter and district schools. In recent years districts in the state of Arizona have been spending at a half-billion per year annual clip on facilities despite having relatively flat enrollment growth in aggregate.

Let’s put it on the table from the outset that this number could never be zero (air-conditioners die, roofs leak etc.) Moreover, some of this spending involves the districts who are big winners in open enrollment making seats to meet demand. I can’t make any complaint about this portion of the building spree-I like it.

Having said that, $500,000,000 per year is a lot of money (enough to pay every teacher in the state $10,000 per year more) and there are hundreds of thousands of empty seats in Arizona districts, which were badly overbuilt during the boom. The Arizona School Facilities Board lists 1.4m square feet of vacant district space (approximately 35% of the total) and strangely enough almost none of this space is suitable for a charter school (in the estimation of district officials).

The word on the street here in PHX is that a handful of the big construction firms find that $500,000,000 profitable enough to invest in bond and override campaigns. So…we continue building space, including in districts with declining enrollment like Scottsdale. Maybe a reporter should look into that…

Now back to the current Harris piece. It is lacking in context, giving no information about the relative profit margins in charter versus district construction. There are no non-profits building schools in Arizona to my knowledge. Moreover, the profits in this case only come about because of the demand for the school model. Without demand, the CMO in question would lack the funds to buy the buildings-ergo no profit. Contrast this with a district system with 1.4 million empty seats but continuing to build more of them despite flat aggregate demand and at an enormous annual cost despite huge spare capacity and the costs for vacant buildings drawing money out of the classroom.

So all in all, where does charter school construction profits rank in a list of school facility issues in your opinion?






7 Responses to Craig Harris Throws His Other Shoe at the Charter Telescreen

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    Isn’t it amazing that no one ever made a dime building district schools?

  2. Jason Bedrick says:

    Meanwhile, on Twitter, Berkshire and others are getting the vapors that this guy said that making money providing education is no different than CVS making money providing health care or food. She can’t articulate why it actually is different, but IT’S JUST WRONG!!

  3. Michael J. Norton says:

    You’re coming over to the Dark Side, Matt. Welcome aboard.

    In a community where there is a shortage of desk space, it makes sense to build a Charter or a Public school.

    In a community like Scottsdale with excess campus space already leaving abandoned buildings, it’s an insane allocation of capital and taxes to build some more.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      I think that is just the common sense side! Taxpayers paid for buildings for the purpose of educating students. If a district bumbles their way to massive empty space…

    • Greg Forster says:

      Coming over? Matt is this blog’s official Sith Lord.

      You merely adopted the dark. Matt was born in it, molded by it.

      • Michael J. Norton says:

        I take a middle position on this issue – managing to infuriate many on each side. It is an absurd waste of taxpayer funds to give a Charter enough money to buy land and build a new campus in the same neighborhood as a public school that sits relatively or completely empty. Allowing Charters to become land owners at taxpayers’ expense thereby duplicating unneeded capacity is an offense to fiscal conservatives.

        Public School Districts should be required to lease at fair market rates their excess capacity to Charters. Doing so would speed up Charter development (hence I’m hated by Public School fans of which I am one) and it would also preclude the naked give away of commercial real estate to Charters (hence I’m an enemy of many Charters).

        Taxpayers win. We don’t get shook down to build duplicate capacity.

        Teachers win. There is funding provided by leases to enable pay scale increases for Teachers of Public Schools and Charter cash flow is also freed up.

        Those playing Monopoly with school properties lose.

      • matthewladner says:


        The massive empty space in AZ districts is a pure waste of resources that should be going into the classroom (or I should say the classrooms with students and teachers in them). Between districts and charters we probably have 150k or more on wait lists, there are empty and (especially) half empty district facilities in abundance. Central planning at its very finest…throw in big facility spending in districts that can’t fill their current seats just rubs salt in the wound.

        I’m happy to look at measures other states have for arm-length charter school facility construction as a part of an overall conversation. I’m not wedded to the status-quo, I just don’t want to miss the forest for a tree.

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