How to Turn Your Leafy Suburban School Districts into Defacto CMOs

February 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Tom Patterson on Friday. Patterson was a crucial legislative supporter of both the Arizona charter and scholarship tax credit laws that passed in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Dr. Patterson related to me that in his first run for the state legislature in 1988, he attended a candidate forum at Arcadia High School, a Scottsdale Unified School District school to which I am zoned. At the time he was campaigning on an open-enrollment law (which came to pass in the 1990s), an idea that his opponent denounced as “crazy.”

A close look at Scottsdale today demonstrates that Dr. Patterson was crazy- crazy like a fox. In fact, without open enrollment Scottsdale Unified would be in trouble today. I came across an interesting power point presentation prepared by demographers for the Scottsdale Unified School District in 2014. Lots of interesting stuff in the document but when I came across the figure that Scottsdale Unified takes in 4,000 out of district transfers, it occurred to me that this was probably a large enough transfer population to get Scottsdale Unified to compare favorably to the state’s larger charter management organizations. Sure enough:

4,000 out of district transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in the state, if it were a CMO. Arizona law requires districts to adopt open enrollment policies, but gives district schools an free hand in deciding which students to accept.

Sadly no one collects statewide data on open enrollment these days, but my spidey-sense tells me that it is underrated here in the Cactus Patch. Based upon a report from the Arizona Auditor, Scottsdale should have a fairly acute interest in open enrollment transfers, as the Arizona Auditor General reports that the district was using 65% of facility capacity in 2012:

The higher cost was primarily caused by the District maintaining a large amount of excess school building space, which was likely not needed because many of the District’s schools operated far below their designed capacities. In fiscal year 2012, Scottsdale USD had total school building capacity of about 38,000 students but only had about 25,000 students enrolled, or in other terms, the District was using about 66 percent of its building capacity. Maintaining more building space is costly to the District because the majority of its funding is based on its number of students, not the amount of square footage it maintains. Had Scottsdale USD maintained a similar amount of school building space per student as its peer districts averaged, it could have saved approximately $3.8 million, monies that the District otherwise potentially could have spent in the classroom. Although the District closed one school campus at the end of fiscal year 2014, in light of its large amount of excess building capacity, the District should continue to review options to further reduce excess space.

Factors other than choice impact Scottsdale enrollment, including an aging population, higher home prices, etc. but choice is playing a role. The demographic report noted that while Scottsdale gained 4,000 students from open-enrollment that they had 9,000 school age children living within their district boundaries not attending Scottsdale Unified schools. Choice programs in other words interact with each other in a dynamic fashion. Many prominent figures in the parental choice movement have argued that Scottsdale kids “already have school choice” but it turns out that when you give them more meaningful school choice, you free up spots for other kids.

The report also includes an analysis of transcript requests as a method for tracking where kids are going. About half of requests came from charter schools-with BASIS and Great Hearts in the lead, another 29% came from private schools, and the remainder came from online schools.

The Arizona Republic wrote up a story about the presentation of the report to the school board, which included a question from a member of the school board as to why an online charter was the largest single recipient of transfer requests when the district had started their own online learning program. “These are kids who, essentially, most of them would be dropping out,” came the reply from an Associate Superintendent.

Two notes on this comment- an online charter was not only the largest recipient of transcript requests, another such school was the third largest single recipient. Not the best look if they were “kids who were going to drop out anyway.” Second, the possibility of negative selection bias may call for a far more careful look at the results of online charters. “Demographic twins” may or may not work out in a rough and ready fashion when we don’t suspect selection bias, but when we do have reason to suspect it..but I digress.


The overall picture in Arizona is one marked by robust accountability (losing students and money) rather than double secret probation accountability. The state turned off the A-F accountability system two years ago to revamp it in light of new tests. Word has reached my ears that the State Board recently had the opportunity to consider a formal written proposal to include student vegetable consumption in the school A-F grading formula.

No I’m not making that up. I also heard they decided not to move forward with the proposal. I’m comforted by the widespread use of the Greatschools website, which has their own ranking system and parent reviews. Overall the Cactus Patch has a vibrant bottom up accountability system (vrai pas faux) while still having to go through the motions on what appears to these eyes to be a relatively dysfunctional system of normal compliance activities amounting to…I’m not sure just what.

So it is great to have Scottsdale Unified competing in the choice mix. It makes me happier to pay my taxes than I otherwise would be. Should Arizonans want still more parental choice?






New Arizona Board of Regents Report on AZ High Schools

September 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents has released a new study utilizing the National Clearinghouse to track the college success by high school for the public school Class of 2008. Specifically they rank district and charter schools by the percentage of kids earning a BA in six years.

The statewide numbers did not improve much from the analysis of the Class of 2006- 19.4% finished a BA instead of 18.6%. University High- a magnet program in Tucson-comes out on top. As mentioned previously their program utilizes entrance exams, minimum grade point averages, etc. so while it is swell it does not qualify as a general enrollment school. Tempe Prep- the ur-Great Hearts prototype- ranked first among general enrollment schools, followed by Veritas Prep- the first of the Great Hearts schools to get a 12th grade cohort into the analysis. Among general enrollment schools, charter schools took 7 out of the top 10 spots, but let’s just say they could a spot more competition from the districts.

The Pew Center’s book The Next America presented polling data showing that the Baby Boom generation was wealthy but miserable. One of the two main reasons for their misery related to their twenty something year old children living in their basement. Er…welcome to the education reform movement!





SBoE Response to Dallas Crisis? Drop the Bucket and Grab a Shot Glass Partner!

July 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams decided to override the State Board of Education to allow Great Hearts to open a school in Dallas, bringing to mind an old Arizona cowboy story. In 1911, the rough and tumble miner/cowboy frontier town of Prescott suffered a terrible fire.  Patrons of the Palace, a favorite watering hole on Prescott’s Whiskey Row to this day, took note of the burning buildings outside and decided to take collective action.  They gathered round the bar you see above, picked it up and moved it across the street to the grounds of what had been the territorial capitol (now the county courthouse).  Having saved the bar and its contents, they sat at the relocated bar and drank their whiskey, watching Prescott burn to the ground.  You can see what remained of the Palace in the below photograph taken after the fire.

This story came to mind when I read this story about the Texas State Board of Education’s attempts to protect the children of Dallas from the option of attending a Great Hearts charter school.  Really it is not fair for me to think this though, because at least Prescott’s cowboys tried to do something in response to their emergency, and they didn’t spend their time trying to thwart the fire fighters.

The 2013 Trial District Urban Assessment revealed that 51% of Dallas Independent School District students scored “Below Basic” in Reading, while only 16% scored Proficient or better.  Dallas parents need as many alternatives as they can get.  The idea of the SBOE wringing its hands about the fact that charter schools in Arizona (or elsewhere) don’t provide transportation, charge fees for certain activities (district and charter schools both do this as permitted by state statute) and solicit donations from parents (district schools get more taxpayer money and still solicit from parents btw) staggers the imagination.

Whoa there fellas- all that noise is making it hard for me to drink…

“I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization,” board member Mavis Knight said during the SBOE’s debate over initially denying the Dallas charter.  Fair enough- a classics approach is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I hope Ms. Knight will exercise her freedom of association rights guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution and not send her children to the Dallas Great Hearts school if that is her preference. It won’t shock me however when hundreds of families decide that the school is a good fit for the needs of their child, and if the Arizona experience is any guide many hundreds more will sit unhappily on the wait list.

A great many Dallas parents have no confidence in DISD (Exhibit A: endless North Dallas suburbia). Those trying to make a go of it in the city deserve options and the right to make their own decision free of Ms. Knight’s guidance.



Whose Tribe Wanted This?

January 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week on NRO Kathleen Porter Magee wrote what reads like a lament for the death of the center-right education reform coalition:

(W)e must resist the centrifugal forces that threaten to pull apart the core policies that together have made the conservative reform movement so successful. Narrowing the scope of this tradition by removing standards and accountability from the theory of change would be a remarkably shortsighted decision, with far-reaching consequences for everyone seeking reform.

I also regret the current controversies, but one has to expect a fight under the tent here and there.  Since actions speak louder than words, I’m guessing it is going to take more than broad expressions of regret to stop this one, even after the current Common Core controversy fades from relevance.

My recollection of how this fight under the tent started would begin with this self-indulgent attack followed by more expression of poor reasoning by the standards tribe like this. Quoting Hirsch:

The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on markets to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools should be teaching. Such guidance would go against the “genius of the market” approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference with curriculum. Stern shows—rightly, I believe—that this is a fundamental failing of the choice movement.

Ironically enough, Dr. Hirsch fails to recognize that a great many schools that have opted in to his benevolent guidance are choice schools of various sorts.  This seems truly odd given that these schools are listed on his own website.  More than a few leading lights of the standards movement, while undoubtedly learned, seem to lack a basic understanding of pluralistic interest group competition. Who drove the classics out of the American public school curriculum in the first place? Why would you expect it to be different in the future?

Here in Arizona the Great Hearts schools have revealed an almost insatiable parental demand for a rigorous classical education- they have 6,000 students, 10,000 students on waiting lists, and every time they open a new school their waiting list grows rather than shrinks.   If you are having trouble understanding why the districts were basically oblivious to this demand before the advent of the dastardly “structural reform” some remedial course work in political science is in order. To the limited (but growing) extent that a classics based approach is proceeding in Arizona districts it is because the combination of parental demand and (**gasp**) charter schools and even more wildly liberal home-schooling movement has created the incentive to move in that direction.

KPM to my knowledge is not responsible for any of this, and this is all in the past. More recent stuff like this however certainly does not help. State testing may be a near total disaster in a great many states, but that’s no reason not to apply it to choice programs. Egads.

The tension between the standards and choice movements boils down to one between centralization and decentralization. It is not impossible to reconcile these urges, but a necessary if not sufficient step on the part of the standards tribe will be to show greater respect for diversity and self-determination. Until such time, remember whose tribe wanted this fight.

Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

September 26, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago when Sol Stern decided to attack parental choice for reasons that are still largely only known to him, City Journal posted an online debate concerning Sol’s article, which included a full-throated endorsement of Sol’s position by E.D. Hirsch.

I had a hard time making much sense of the Hirsch critique. It seemed to read much more as an indictment of bad state standards than of the parental choice movement.  The parental choice movement’s original sin seemed to be in being a “structural reform” that ignored the vital importance of imposing Core Knowlege on everyone.

Or something to that effect, near as I could tell. I was and still am confused with exactly how this is supposed to happen, but I’m sure someone has a fail-safe plan this time.

My own contribution to the debate attempted to make the point that of course the political constraints facing parental choice programs keep them from being some sort of miracle-drug cure-all, but that was hardly a reason to oppose it. I haven’t seen any other miracle cures either. Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that the parental choice movement and the standards movement need to necessarily be at odds.

In any case, above is a picture of the district middle school in my neighborhood-Shea Middle School in the Paradise Valley School District. Shea is proudly announcing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum will begin in August 2013 in a 9000 point font banner you see above. At least one of the elementary schools that feed in to Shea Middle School has also  adopted Core Knowledge.

Shea’s adoption of Core Knowledge might have something to do with the fact that two of the highest performing charter schools in country opened campuses in the area this fall. Arizona homegrown outfits BASIS and Great Hearts both opened new schools within a few miles of Shea Middle School in the Fall of 2012.  Both BASIS and Great Hearts have an impressive record of academic achievement. Some of the Great Hearts schools have generated 1,000 student waiting lists, and both operators have attracted the interest of out-of-state philanthropists.*

Of course it could be the case that these new schools opening in the neighborhood had nothing to do with the decision to adopt Core Knowledge, or to hang a giant banner advertising the adoption for that matter. Other Paradise Valley schools have used the Core Knowledge curriculum for years. It is within the realm of the plausible that Shea Middle School would have been adopting Core Knowledge in 2013 whether facing competition from BASIS and Great Hearts or not. If I were to have the opportunity to ask PV officials about this, they might very well make such a claim with conviction.

And if I hadn’t seen an email from a Parent-Teacher group from one of the feeder elementary schools full of steely determination not to lose students to the new charter schools, I might have even believed them. The email expressed (rational) concern about losing students and listed a number of possible strategies including the adoption of IB, foreign language immersion and (yes) Core Knowledge as reform strategies….and now the banner.

Smoking gun? No. Enough to convince a reasonable person? Certainly.

Parental choice mechanisms have done a great deal to satisfy parental demand for Core Knowledge and CK type schools. If we had more of it, we would also have a higher use of CK and similar curriculum both in district and non-district schools. Hopefully it will prove useful for Shea Middle School. Alternatively, we could dream of a master plan that transforms millions of public school teachers into Allan Bloom in one great non-incremental stroke, but I think we all know how that story ends.

Oh well, back to the old super-genius drawing board…

Personally I am a fan of traditional curriculum and want it to be available to those who desire it. I’m also leery of imposing it on those who don’t. I view American schools as having serious curriculum problems, but plenty of other problems as well. Dirigisme got us into this mess, and some of us are naturally skeptical that a new and improved version is going to get us out of it all by itself.

* Disclosure: I serve on the board of a BASIS school (not the one discussed here) and two of my children very happily attend a Great Hearts Academy (but not the school alluded to here).

Edited for Typos

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