Commentary and opinion
In what has become an annual ritual, parents once again camped outside Sunnyslope High School in north-central Phoenix recently, seeking an open enrollment spot for their children.
Sunnyslope, part of the Glendale Union High School District, is an example of a high-demand district school. It’s obviously doing many things right if people are camping out every January. (You can watch a news story about this year’s campout here.)
While Arizona law requires charter schools to use a random lottery when applications exceed seats, it only requires districts to have an open enrollment policy. The open enrollment policy for Sunnyslope apparently works on a first come, first served basis. If the school employed a lottery, there would be no advantage to camping out over a weekend to be an early applicant.
Sunnyslope is an interesting case because many of the high schools in adjacent districts are substantially better funded on a per-student basis. Nearby Phoenix Union High School District, for instance, has an average level of per-student funding 31 percent higher than Sunnyslope. Nevertheless, parents line up outside Sunnyslope.
Arizona charter schools also have lower than average levels of per-pupil funding, and long wait lists. The lottery requirement thankfully prevents campouts, because if everyone on charter school waitlists showed up early, their presence would cover acres, as there are tens of thousands of students on charter school waitlists.
In a reasonable world, Sunnyslope would expand to meet demand, or even replicate itself to create a second Sunnyslope. Districts don’t tend to follow this path for fairly basic political reasons, namely their incumbent interests. Replicating high-demand schools can disrupt the enrollment of other schools in the district. Districts also face intense community opposition to closing low-demand schools, even when they’re more than half empty. This latter tendency tends to draw resources out of classroom use, and undersupply families with the schools they want.
Arizona has a growing number of innovative districts that actively participate in open enrollment and that are actively expanding their facilities in order to accommodate demand. School replication, however, represents a line that even innovative districts have yet to cross.
The wisdom of crowds is apparent in the average performance level of Arizona’s charter schools. High-demand schools have managed to replicate over time, and Arizona parents have not been shy about closing undesired charter schools. This process accelerated at both ends during the Great Recession, with harsh conditions and funding cuts helping to close several schools, while the availability of inexpensive property allowed high-demand charter organizations to expand and/or replicate. When demand drives the creation of highly-desired schools, and leads to the closure of undesired schools, amazing things can happen.
Take a look at this chart, which shows NAEP eighth-grade math scores and gains for district systems around the country and for Arizona charter schools. The eighth-grade reading chart shows similar results.
Arizona charter schools educate a majority-minority student body, unlike districts in New Hampshire, Minnesota and Massachusetts that show similar scores. The process of closing low-demand schools and replicating high-demand schools, especially in the speeded-up environment of Great Recession Arizona, produced very impressive academic results.
Now just imagine if Arizona districts got into the business of replicating high-demand schools like Sunnyslope. As John Chubb and Terry Moe explained in their book, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools,” politics create a major problem in K-12 education. Districts failing to replicate high-demand schools at the behest of the people working in other district schools is a prime example of the problem.