Scottsdale Unified Needs an Appetite for Disruption

October 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Update from the Arizona Republic on Scottsdale Unified enrollment trends. I am a SUSD taxpayer and have taken a look at SUSD from time to time as a microcosm of how school choice programs interact. Scottsdale faces a good deal of competition from charters and to a lesser degree private schools, and also has been unusually open to open enrollment transfers for a fancy district.

So first the good news: SUSD academic performance continued to improve with the release of the 2018 AZMerit scores:

A previous district sponsored study found that the top issue identified by families living in the Scottsdale district but sending their students elsewhere was “academic rigor.” This seems to be trending in the right direction.

Now for the not so good news: as touched upon in the Republic story: looking past scandals, investigations and resignations the district has a very large amount of empty space and declining enrollment. The district also has up to $229,000,000 to spend on facilities, a source of said scandals, investigations and resignations. District enrollment is down 4,800 from the peak in 2002 and trending down. A 2012 Auditor General report found the district utilizing only 65% of capacity and the projections are for still lower enrollment. $229m is a lot of money to spend on a 22,000 and falling enrollment count and district leaders should ponder long and hard the factors that influence enrollment decisions, such as those revealed by their previous survey (“lack of academic rigor” is not easily mistranslated into “building not spiffy.”)

The Republic article details an agonizing set of choices facing the Scottsdale Unified board- spending money on facilities with declining enrollment runs the risk of needing to close the facility regardless at some future point. Without increased enrollment, closures will become inevitable. Communities don’t react well to school closures, but Scottsdale parents have been voting with their feet. A potential best strategy going forward was reported on in the Republic story:

Board member Kim Hartmann challenged the board to think about ways schools can improve to make them more desirable.

Hartmann called attention to Cheyenne Traditional School, with 955 students, which has high AzMERIT scores and has captured students from outside the district through open enrollment.

Scottsdale Unified has enough empty space to open a dozen or more Cheyenne Traditional Schools, or (better yet) a mix of other specialized programs. Who should decide which Scottsdale Unified campuses should remain open? Why not leave the decision up to parents? If the district can give more parents what they are looking for, fewer campuses will need to close-expand rather than shrink the pie. Why not give the opportunity for declining enrollment SUSD schools to specialize? Why not co-locate micro-school concepts in half empty campuses? Why not lease empty space to charter school operators to generate revenue?

The best Arizona districts are not sweating competition-they are beating it with a club. There will always be a Scottsdale Unified, however it do well to adapt to a new era and seize the opportunities afforded by it. SUSD has the potential to produce higher levels of parental satisfaction and student achievement by increasing the diversity of approaches to education. If the SUSD board would like to avoid endless hours of painful and emotional hearings on school closures (and who wouldn’t?) they would do well to delegate the decision on which campuses to close to Scottsdale parents and educators, who just might choose “none of the above.” The board should imo give educators the opportunity to specialize their schools and seek new enrollment, and create a minimum enrollment/space standard for closure. Let parents sort out the rest.

 

 


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


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.

4th-grade-science-gains-charter

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?

 

 

 

 

 


WSJ on ESA and Jordan Visser

April 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Wall Street Journal has a news story on the Arizona Empowerment Accounts program today. Notice especially the intellectual incoherence of the Scottsdale official trying to explain how it hurts the finances of the district to lose special needs students:

School districts say that even though state funding doesn’t cover the costs of special-needs students, they don’t necessarily save that money if a student leaves the district. The Scottsdale district says it pays about $10 million to $12 million more than it gets from the state and federal government to educate its special-needs students.

“If every student with special needs left, then maybe we would save that $12 million, but at the same time, it’s pretty implausible,” said Daniel O’Brien, chief financial officer of the Scottsdale district. He added that the schools would still have students with all kinds of other needs who may not qualify for ESAs, and they would still need to educate those students.

Did you follow that?  Scottsdale says that they use $10m to $12m in general education funds above and beyond what it receives in state and federal funding for special needs children.  I certainly agree that it is utterly implausible that all special needs students will choose to leave the Scottsdale district, but that whole line of thought misses the most important point: if a child leaves with their “inadequate funding” then you have no cause to cry about it.  You still have the $10m to $12m in the bank- now you just have more options with what to do with some of it- you might want to spend more on your remaining special needs kids, you may want to do a slightly smaller transfer from general ed to special ed, but either way the district wins.

Notice also that 90% of what the Scottsdale Unified would have received for Jordan Visser seems to be serving his needs quite well.

For the past three years, Ms. Visser has educated her son, Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, at their Scottsdale, Ariz., home. He has a packed schedule of one-on-one instructional sessions with a specialist, physical-education classes, music lessons, horse-riding therapy and other programs—all of which she pays for through a state-funded program informally known as the “education debit card.”

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!