Craig Harris Throws His Other Shoe at the Charter Telescreen

July 12, 2018

(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?







The Two-Minute Hate or Race to the Tap?

May 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 made use of a daily “two-minute hate” to whip people into a frenzy against enemies of the state. As wikipedia explains:

Within the book, the purpose of the Two Minutes Hate is said to satisfy the citizens’ subdued feelings of angst and hatred from leading such a wretched, controlled existence. By re-directing these subconscious feelings away from the Oceanian government and toward external enemies (which may not even exist), the Party minimizes subversive thought and behaviour.

So about now you are wondering to yourself “why are you flashing me back to junior year English class?” Good question- I guess it came to mind because of things like this and this.

Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as an elephant (instinct) and a rider that serves the elephant (reason). The rider serves the elephant by seeking out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs, and avoids contradictory information. Individuals are thus not trustworthy in reasoning in support of their beliefs, but are pretty good at knocking down the theories of others. If however you find yourself isolated in an ideologically homogeneous tribe no one is likely to point out glaring flaws in your thinking as they either cannot or don’t want to see them any more than you do.

The problems with the above pieces seem entirely obvious to me, but apparently were invisible to the Republic. I knew this article was heading in a bad direction when I saw a former campaign manager for David Garcia described as “former BASIS parent.” Both of these descriptions are true…but one is incomplete without the other. The reporter’s effort in establishing whether the CMO management fee was reasonable given the services provided more or less ended with an assurance from a professional charter skeptic that it wasn’t. Well, can’t much argue with that…

Now for the record I don’t know the percentage of K-12 funds typically spent on the services provided by the BASIS CMO either. Given the outputs BASIS produces, I’ll confess to being broadly indifferent as to whether districts spend more or less. The Reporter’s elephant wanted to believe it was high, and sure enough he found someone to make this claim. Neither of them produced any evidence, or a rationale as to why we should care.

The two-minute hate moves into throw your shoe territory when our intrepid reporter reveals that the founders of the CMO put down a down payment on a condo in New York City…which is near private schools they operate…which charge approximately four times the amount provided by Arizona taxpayers to provide the same education that Arizona children receive free of charge. In an organization including charter schools in Arizona, Texas and D.C. and private schools in China, Silicon Valley and NYC that the highest ROI part of the operation would be in the modestly funded but very high performing AZ charter schools. The Republic reporter’s elephant lumbered off in the opposite direction however, with his rider helping to raise a vague concern that somehow Arizona taxpayers were being short-changed er somehow. In other pieces we see assertions that BASIS gets more funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona. A quick trip to the JLBC however reveals this to be false- charter schools get less total public funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona.

It is also common to see an organization critical of charter schools, the Grand Canyon Institute, described as “non-partisan” in the pages of the Republic. Having spent a few minutes on their website, I could detect no overt attachment to any political party, but the philosophical leanings of the group are entirely obvious (left of center).

I spent a number of years at the Goldwater Institute, and we spent years in public disputes and filed lawsuits challenging both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the memory fades, but I don’t recall the Republic referring to GI as “non-partisan.” When the GCI put out a report critical of charters, one of the paper’s columnists wrote that GCI “supports charter schools.” Things had just become soooo bad that they had no choice but to offer sharp but constructive criticism you see. GCI is run by a former official of the Janet Napolitano administration, and when I asked one of his former Napolitano colleagues about this assertion the reaction I received was “That’s absurd. George has always hated charter schools.” Again I assume that someone from GCI claimed to support charter schools, and it fit into what the columnist wanted to believe, but it isn’t terrible hard to check up on such things.

Now to be fair, the Republic does have some ideological diversity on the opinion page, which is approximately evenly split between a hard-left wing and an assortment of writers varying degrees to the right of Bernie Sanders. Center-right columnist Bob Robb has supported increased K-12 funding for years, but is an equal opportunity offender taking everyone from RedforEd to Governor Ducey to task. Centrist Joanna Allhands very helpfully noted for instance that er, guys, all schools raise money from parents, not just BASIS.

It’s not like the non-Bernie columnists challenge everything questionable put out by Team Bernie. If they did, they wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. The worst of it is that the news page seems be serving the elephant of the Bernie wing of the opinion pages: investigative pieces translate effortlessly into two-minute hate type opinion pieces.

For instance, when the Republic published a giant nothing-burger of a front page above the Sunday fold story about FOIAed emails between the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Department of Education concerning the administration of the ESA program. Now if any of these emails were any more exciting than Jonathan Butcher writing to the Department to say “Guys there are ESA parents out here who haven’t had their accounts funded on time and they are getting very upset about it” I assume the Republic would have shared them with us. Gleefully. Instead, the Reporter’s elephant went in search of someone who would confirm that there was something very naughty going on:

“This is almost an iron grip-level of influence from the beginning of the process on,” said Thomas Holyoke, an associate professor of political science at California State University-Fresno, who studies interest groups and lobbying.

“This sounds like a full-service operation; it wasn’t just writing the legislation,” he added. “You have elected officials, who are supposed to be repositories of the public’s trust, who are pushing legislation and probably building careers off of big, high-profile bills that have some potentially extremely far-reaching effects.

I won’t rehash the glaring flaws in this story here, but will ask a very basic question: if the Goldwater Institute had an “iron grip” on the administration of the program, isn’t it reasonable to think that accounts would be funded on time, proper records kept, etc?

Team Bernie on the opinion pages lapped it up. Worse still, when the Goldwater Institute asked to publish a response, the Republic chose not to publish it.  This sort of thing has led to a large number of right of center Arizonans to angrily mutter about how they cancelled their subscriptions years ago, that the Republic is hopelessly biased, they only hung on for as long as they did to read Robb, etc.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were willing to join this line of thinking. I believe that keeping some common institutions to be of unspeakable importance. Checking out to entomb oneself in a comfortable echo chamber is a path to hopeless polarization. A few years ago the Arizona Chamber of Commerce began a “Race to the Tap” event with the hope of getting people from different K-12 silos at least occasionally talking to each other.

I’m pretty sure that Geoff Esposito pictured here with yours-truly makes Laurie Roberts look like a second coming of Barry Goldwater. I’m fairly confident that Geoff helped to draft the catastrophic mistake of a soak the rich tax initiative the Invest in Ed ballot initiative that would raise Arizona incomes taxes to New Jersey levels. Geoff and I don’t agree on much related to K-12, but we do listen to each other, which is an art that Americans are losing much to our detriment. Arizona could use a good deal more tap and less two-minute hates.