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?






Arizona is the NAEP Value Added Champion of 2015

May 16, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Tom Patterson recently wrote a column about Arizona NAEP scores, and stated that Arizona had the highest overall gains in combined Reading and Math scores between the 2015 8th grade scores and the same cohort of students 2011 scores as 4th graders.  I decided to check it out.

NAEP has been following an odd number year cycle, meaning that the four-year gap between the same cohort of student can be measured. In this case, I took the statewide 2015 Math scores and subtracted from them the statewide 2011 4th grade math scores. We more commonly compare 8th grade scores to those of previous 8th graders, but measuring cohort gains is also of interest.

A note of caution before proceeding it is possible to do well on the below gains analysis without ranking terribly high. Likewise you could have the highest overall 8th grade scores but also had high 4th grade scores four years earlier and look meh in this particular analysis. Like achievement gaps, each state’s gain score requires a close look before drawing conclusions- but generally speaking the states with the biggest scores below would have started with modest 4th grade scores and then shown much higher scores for the same students as 8th graders. Obviously factors other than school system effectiveness could come into play (massive gentrification in the District of Columbia comes readily to mind) and every state will have students both come and go between 2011 and 2015.

Okay now that you’ve read the warning label:

NAEP Math Cohort gain 2015

In terms of context, Arizona’s 4th graders scored 5 points below the national average in 4th grade math in 2011 but two points higher in 8th grade math in 2015. There is nothing about starting below the national average that makes it inevitable you will crush the ball in gains. Alabama for instance had 2011 4th grade math scores 9 points below the national average but then displayed 8th grade scores in 2015 that were 14 points below the national average.

Reading gains below:

NAEP Reading Cohort gain 2015

Arizona’s 4th graders scored 8 points below the national average in 4th grade reading in 2011. As 8th graders in 2015 however this group of students had scores only one point below the national average- within the margin of error thus catching them up to the national average. In short, Tom Patterson nailed it- AZ looks to have had the best 2011 to 2015 period.

So this got me to thinking-what if we tracked the same cohort gains for Arizona charter school students and compared them to statewide averages? As we’ve noted before, with the largest state charter sector as a percentage of the population, Arizona has substantially more students than the entire public school system of Wyoming. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools also compiles data about state charter sectors, so we know that the sector (like Arizona as a whole) has a majority minority student body.

Well this is what it looks like for Math:

NAEP Math cohort gains with AZ charters

Keep on rocking the free world! Similar story with reading:

NAEP Reading Cohort gain 2015 AZ charter

Given the Arizona’s charter schools rank near the top in over NAEP scores, and first in overall NAEP cohort gains between 2015 and 2011, they have a great deal to celebrate- as does Arizona as a whole. Nothing in these results makes a case for complacency Arizona has only numerically exceeded one of the national averages on the four main NAEP exams, and America remains a low performing nation. Nevertheless if this is what getting an F on the Ravitch report card looks like, what can we do to get an F minus minus?



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