How About More “Very Nimble” District Schools?

September 21, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a quote from my state Senator, Kate Brophy McGee, that scores high on the unintentionally hilarious meter. A left of center organization issued a report complaining about procurement rules governing Arizona charters. Senator Brophy McGee stated:

State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican from Phoenix, said charter schools should be held to the same standards as public schools because both deal with public money.

“We’ve given district schools more and more regulation, while not requiring the same of these very nimble charters, and we wonder why the public schools aren’t as successful,” McGee said.

I have what I think is a better idea- one of these two sectors should become more like the other, but based on what we see in the academic data it is the districts who should become more like the charters, rather than the other way around. Last session for instance Governor Ducey called for districts to have similar freedom in hiring to charters. It, ah, seems to be working out really well for charters. This makes all the sense in the world, but reactionary elements of the district establishment acted like it was some sort of ghastly mistake. As the Prime Minister of the UK might say “I refer the honourable gentlemen to the red columns in the above chart.”

If the Grand Canyon Institute or anyone else has evidence of lawbreaking, they should refer these to the appropriate authorities. The State Board for Charter Schools is for instance empowered to investigate complaints. More importantly, Arizona parents are absolutely brutal in punishing schools that fail to deliver- they have other options and can vote with their feet. This is real accountability as opposed to the faux bureaucratic variety.



There Will Always be a Scottsdale Unified

September 18, 2017

(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

No Arizona Charters We’ve Got to Win MOARRRRR!!!!

September 14, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

After the release of the 2017 AzMerit, the Arizona Charter School Association reported that 97% of the top 100 Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in terms of percentage passing the English Language Arts AzMerit exams were charters. I decided to check out the data for myself.

This however may actually be “too much winning” given that most of the charter LEAs are individual schools, whereas a school district like Catalina Foothills is a multi-school district. I’ll let you ponder that holy mystery for yourself, but I ran the same numbers for individual campuses. The top 100 individual campuses were almost evenly split between districts and charters-51 district schools and 49 charters.

In 2012-13 (the last time NAPCS had data) charters only made up 24.5% of Arizona public schools, so it is plenty of winning to make up almost half of the top schools by ELA passing rate. I’m thrilled that scores continue to improve for both district and charter schools.

I’ve been CHAITED, been MISTREATED, when will wildly successful low reg charter sectors be loved?

September 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT to Asness on the title

I stopped reading Jonathan Chait’s piece on charter schools when I came across this:

The most successful charter systems tend to be highly regulated, with controls to require high-quality operators and close down low-performing schools.

This statement is the precise opposite of the truth. High regulation charter sectors seem extremely adept at preventing charter schools from opening, but not much else. Meanwhile we have multiple examples of states with low NACSA scores for their charter laws but very promising student outcomes (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah).

Let me help you out JC:

The most successful charter systems tend to be highly lightly regulated, with controls competition to require high-quality operators and close down low-performing schools.

Happy to be of service. Carry on.

Arizona Low-Income Scores in Both Districts and Charters are Moving On Up

September 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The improvement in AZMerit scores looks broad and inclusive across subgroups. Economically disadvantaged students for instance show academic gains across school sectors in Arizona. Here is a look at the trends for 4th grade district students:

Here are the 4th grade trends for low-income students attending Arizona charter schools:

Arizona students made larger academic gains on NAEP between 2009 and 2015 than any other state under very trying circumstances. The AZMerit data indicates that they kept making progress in 2016 and 2017. This is a great accomplishment for our students, our teachers and our policymakers, and hopefully…

2017 AZMerit Scores Improve, AZ Charters Continue to Rock

September 6, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Longtime Jayblog readers may vaguely recall something about Arizona charter schools rocking the 2015 NAEP, might have seen a post or two about Arizona’s statewide results leading the nation in NAEP gains from 2009 to 2015. I mean, you know, maybe you saw a thing or two here along these lines.

Ring a bell?

Okay good. So today the Arizona Department of Education released the 2017 AZMerit exams, and by the look of things results have continued to improve statewide. The below chart shows all tests for all students at all grade levels for both districts and charters:

Based upon how AZMerit lined up with the NAEP in 2015, Arizona charter schools may have improved from merely world class to somewhere in the realm of supercalafragilisticexpealadocious. In the chart below, the blue columns are from 2015, and the AZ Merit passing rates that year landed Arizona’s majority-minority modestly funded charter sector in the same NAEP neighborhood as New England states on scores. Judging by AZMerit, the improvement did not stop in 2015. Here for instance is 4th grade Math and ELA for AZ charters:

Here are the 4th grade numbers for Hispanic charter students. Again bear in mind that the 2015 numbers hit the very high end on NAEP compared to statewide averages:

There is no guarantee that the AZMerit improvement will translate on NAEP. It is possible that some of the improvement we see is a testing familiarity effect. Having said that, based on the statewide and charter school improvement seen in the AZMerit data, I’m looking forward to the release of the 2017 NAEP in January. For now:

Harper’s Magazine Publishes an Article Scapegoating Private Choice

August 30, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Harper’s Magazine wrote a long piece about K-12 education in Arizona.


The piece is by-the-numbers approach for Arizona choice opponents, broadly conflating two issues- first how much should we spend in public education? Second should we have parental choice? Blaming choice for all the woes of public education represents a central flaw in the argument, but there is an even bigger problem- the article focuses exclusively on inputs rather than outcomes.

Arizona has an unusual age demographic profile as both a retirement destination and a border state. We have lots of old people (retirees) and lots of young people (large average family sizes for Catholic and LDS families). As a consequence we have a relatively small working age population- and the working age population are the ones paying the bills at any given time. Add to this the practice of urban revenue sharing- where the state gives money to cities off the top- and the fact that Arizona is not a wealthy state, you have the makings of a state ranking near the bottom in spending per pupil compared to other states. Compared to what Arizona spent on public education in say the 1970s, it is much higher now, even per pupil and adjusted for inflation. In other words, it is a tragedy that Arizona did less of this in the minds of some:


Next- public school spending is decided democratically, and is not much impacted by private school choice. Arizona voters have sent a Republican majority to the House continuously since the 1960s. They could have elected a Democrat governor in 2014- they chose not to do so. Voters have their say on overrides- they pass some, they turn others down. Just five years ago they voted on a statewide initiative that would have created a permanent sales tax increase to fund education among other things. It lost overwhelmingly. Proposition 123 referenced in the article included an additional $3.5 billion for schools without a tax increase and barely passed. It is very difficult to make the case, based on the way people vote, that there is a general outcry for higher taxes to fund more school spending.

If Arizona voters chose not to emulate the above chart with the same gusto as the national average, let’s just say it isn’t crazy given how it worked out for everyone else.

The private choice programs meanwhile educate about 4% of the state’s children for about 2% of the funding. When you look across the full gambit of district, charter and private choice programs the districts are the best funded option by a wide margin. The average district school spending per pupil for instance is about four and a half times greater than the average tax credit scholarship. This system is deeply unfair- to districts?

The reason that you see articles like this, the ballot effort, etc. is that the Great Recession was very hard on Arizona’s finances. The state economy is heavily dependent on housing (building houses and golf courses for retirees is a large industry here in the Cactus Patch) and the housing lead downturn hit early and hard here in AZ when people could no longer sell their house in Wisconsin etc. and move to Arizona. State general revenue dropped 20% in a single year. The Obama stimulus and a temporary sales tax increase supported by Governor Brewer staved things off for a time, but eventually there really were per pupil funding cuts. In more recent years the funding has increased, but a lot of grievances can build in a rough decade.

The Harper’s article’s conflating of choice and spending represents a substantial flaw in reporting. If we eliminated the private choice programs tomorrow and most of the kids were forced back to district schools (the high demand charters have wait lists) approximately nothing would change about the fundamentals of public school finance- everyone who is grouchy now would still feel grouchy, and many would find that their problems had increased rather than improved.

An even larger flaw in the Harper article- entirely ignoring outcomes.

During the precise period of economic distress, Arizona lead the nation in academic gains for our students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP gives 6 tests-4th and 8th grade math, science and reading and we can currently track all six tests from 2009 to 2015 (new results will be available for 2017 in January). Arizona is the only state whose students made significant gains on all six exams. When you net out significant declines from significant increases, the average state improved on just over one test.

While someone else might like to offer some sort of Rube-Goldberg level of complexity argument otherwise, but the above chart makes it seem obvious to me that charter schools are very much helping to drive improvement. Charter schools are approaching 20% of the market and have done much more to put a squeeze on districts than anything in private choice.

So essentially what we have here is a situation in which there has been belt-tightening, where academic results are improving faster than anywhere else, and where the incumbent providers (districts) are feeling very put upon . There are much larger factors at work than private choice, and overall the systemic bet that Arizona lawmakers put on choice has paid off handsomely outcome-wise.

Arizona has a long way to go and a short time to get there, but it is hard to realistically ask for more than “leading the nation in gains.” You can of course prefer to spend more money (this is why we have elections) but choice opponents have essentially made private choice programs into a scapegoat for other frustrations.