Nearly a year ago, teachers marched from classrooms to capitols demanding higher pay around the country. But in one state, many school buildings remain emptied of instructors and students alike.
Why are schools across the state of Arizona still empty or underutilized? It’s not because the Grand Canyon State has witnessed a replay of its “RedforEd”-led teacher strikes for a second year in a row a la West Virginia, or because the state’s 20 percent pay raise failed to bring teachers back into their schools after last spring. No, these classrooms and buildings are simply empty because — in a state with ever swelling K-12 enrollments — no one has made the effort to fill them.
In fact, in Arizona, there’s over 1.4 million square feet of vacant and underused space among the state’s district schools. But fortunately for students in Arizona and other states, however, opportunity is knocking on the doors of these empty classrooms: the opportunity for districts to share space, resources and even talents with partner schools looking for a home.
While many of Arizona’s highest performing district and charter schools continue to witness surging enrollments and waitlists long out the door, the state’s auditor general has found neighboring districts with “substantial, long-term excess building capacity,” with one district’s 10 high schools averaging enrollment at just 52 percent of their capacity, and another diverting nearly $4 million to excess facilities — enough for a roughly $3,000 pay raise for every one of its teachers.
A recent groundbreaking study showed that the idea of districts and charters sharing space together (known as “co-locating”) should land at the forefront of conversations to help lift up our schools. As the study noted, these campus-sharing arrangements “may actually be a good policy for both charter and (traditional) public schools,” increasing the amount that’s spent on classroom instruction — rather than other areas — by 8.9 percent. In Arizona, that would translate to an additional $390 per student, or $7,800 per classroom of 20 students.
Beyond offering financial relief to both district and charters, these same campus-sharing arrangements produced academic gains, reductions in the number of students being held back, and even increases in families’ sense of their children’s safety. In other words, when schools are able to shift their priorities away from upkeep of excess facilities toward classroom instruction, students come out ahead.
Arizona has already seen at least one shining example of co-location’s potential: a partnership forged between the Madison Elementary School District in Phoenix with the Madison Highland Prep charter high school hosted on one of the district’s middle school campuses. Beyond offering significant support to the district’s budget through its lease, the charter school has given back to the younger district students through service opportunities like mentoring and tutoring by its high schoolers.
Far from the pitched battles in which district and charter schools are cast as enemies, opportunities to enter into campus-sharing arrangements offer among the most promising avenues to lift up both models of education.
In today’s dynamic world, families in many states have the opportunity to send their children to the school that serves their needs best — rather than being assigned arbitrarily to a school based on their zip code, regardless of academic quality or safety. Yet while some might think cramming educational innovation back into the bottle and eliminating families’ opportunities for choice might be the solution, Arizona has shown that choice is not only an asset to families, but to districts as well.
In fact, the data from Arizona show that other district schools, rather than charters, benefit most from greater student mobility: Arizona’s district schools draw twice as many kids away from their default neighborhood school through the state’s “open enrollment” process as do charters.
Certainly few would condemn the ability of districts to compete with one another through the quality of their educational offerings. The dramatically smaller impact of charter schools should raise even fewer objections. And the idea of partnering charter schools seeking space with districts who have it in abundance should raise fewer still.
Indeed, while states like West Virginia find themselves whiplashed by new teacher strikes aimed not for teachers and students, but against charter schools and choice, opportunities abound in Arizona and across the country to replace rivalries and wasted resources with collaboration and creativity.