Arizona Chamber Foundation & Goldwater Institute Joint Letter Discussing Policy Review of District-Charter Co-location

Dear Readers,

While Arizona proudly continues its decade-long reign as one of the fastest academically improving states nationally, there remains much to do. Improving the quality of schooling for every student will only continue so long as we continue to offer more and more students the opportunity to learn in the best schools we have. Doing so requires a disciplined policy focus.

Arizona has a shortage of space for students in some of our best district and charter schools, with demand far outstripping supply for many public schools. But simultaneously, Arizona has a glut of underutilized space in many districts in the form of both entirely vacant and underutilized facilities—over 1.4 million square feet of reported vacant or underused building space, and even more available capacity going unreported. Ideally, the best schools we have will be able to expand or replicate in order to serve the students who want to attend their schools, and we know that most of the full schools would welcome that opportunity. We must give them access to available space.

According to a 2018 Arizona Auditor General report, multiple districts have “built new schools or added square footage to existing schools in anticipation of increased student enrollment that did not ultimately materialize, and that districts rebuilt existing schools with much larger facilities when no substantial student growth was expected.” The report disclosed that between fiscal years 2004 and 2017, Arizona school districts added 22.6 million square feet of building space—a 19 percent increase—despite a student enrollment increase of only 6 percent during this same period. Despite all of this, several districts are currently suing the state of Arizona for more facility funding, ignoring the issue of underutilized and vacant space.

Maintaining underutilized space drains millions of dollars out of Arizona classrooms that could be used on teacher compensation. Fortunately, practices developed in other states have the promise to modernize facility use and expand opportunities for families to attend high demand district and charter programs, while allowing more resources to be directed into the classroom and teacher pay.

Arizona families have proven far more mobile than anticipated. A recent study combining data from Yale and the Center for Student Achievement found that only about half of Maricopa County students attend the district school they would be assigned to based on their zip code—with students leaving for another district school twice as often as for a charter. In- creased student mobility, changes in demographic patterns, and lackluster responsiveness have left many Arizona districts with a large stock of underutilized space, while other new or high performing district and charter schools have surged in enrollment and in their need for capacity.

As explained in this report, we can do better than leaving families stranded on waitlists while public school space goes underutilized. Georgia, New York, and other states have developed policies for school co-location, which can be mutually beneficial to both district and charter schools, to families, and to taxpayers. If adopted in the Grand Canyon State, such policies would give Arizona districts the ability to gain revenue and redirect resources to classrooms and teachers, and give Arizona families expanded opportunity to attend a school that is the right fit for their children’s aspirations and needs.

Emily Anne Gullickson
Arizona Chamber Foundation

Victor Riches
Goldwater Institute