Ep. 272: 25 Years with Matt Ladner — The Arizona Story

September 29, 2021

Brian McGrath: Hello, everybody. This is Brian McGrath. I’m the Vice President of External Relations at EdChoice, and I’m thrilled to have a longtime friend of mine, and also the Director for Arizona Center for Student Opportunities, Matt Ladner, with us today. Matt, how are you doing?

Matt Ladner: Great!

Brian McGrath: Great. Thanks for joining us. Usually when I do these kind of interviews or podcasts, I spend a lot of time thinking up lots of questions that I need to ask the guest so I can draw all sort of things out them, but you are such an evangelist for Arizona … and that’s our topic today, the success of Arizona, that I think I just have one question to start with, which is, what’s going on in Arizona? Tell us the good news, and tell us what we can make of it.

Matt Ladner: Sure thing. Well, kids learn more in school in Arizona per year than any other state in the country. How’s that? That’s a good place-

Brian McGrath: That was an impressive start.

Matt Ladner: That’s a good place to start, right? Stanford University has a group of data that they use. They’ve linked state testing data from across the country that can tell you about growth, and tell you about proficiency, and by subgroups, and all that sort of thing. The good news for Arizona is that Arizona has the highest level of academic growth overall. We have the highest overall level of academic growth for low income kids, and we rank either first or second in a variety of different student subgroups. This is different than to say that Arizona has the highest test scores. This is tracking where did kids start in third grade, and where did they end up in eighth grade. Growth is what you need if you are starting off behind, which our kids do, obviously.

Arizona’s a low income state, and we’re at the border of Mexico, we have a majority minority student population, and we haven’t allowed any of that stuff to stop us. There’s a lot of positive momentum, and I think that more than anything else, Arizona gives lie to the idea that somehow school choice will harm public or district schools in some way. We still have district schools here. They still educate a majority of the kids. They just do so now at a higher level than they did in the past, and that’s fantastic. We’re not out to destroy public education. We’re out to give families options, and I think it’s still the case that Arizona has done more of that than other states, although there’s certainly competition now.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: Including from Indiana. I’m watching what you guys are doing, so you’re not going to let us rest on our laurels.

Brian McGrath: Well, that’s good, a little healthy competition amongst choice states is a good thing. Rewind a little bit and tell me what was happening before choice became a big part of Arizona, and then maybe expand on why those things didn’t work, and the expansion of choice has worked to improve academic outcomes like growth for your students in Arizona.

Matt Ladner: Yeah, Arizona is an interesting state. I like to tell audiences sometimes that … I’ll get up to the podium and say that my name is Matthew Ladner and I’m from the future. I’m from your state’s demographic future, because Arizona is both a retirement destination and a border state. So we’ve had very large increases in both our elderly and our Hispanic populations here in the state. The state has rapidly grown all the way back, say, World War II, enrollment growth was a defining characteristic. The rest of y’all keep moving here and bringing your golf clubs. That’s great. We want you. But if you stretch the NAEP data back as far as it goes, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the Nation’s Report Card, you take that state level data back as far as it’ll go, which is 1990, the Arizona of 1990 was not setting the world on fire in terms of academic performance. It was a majority Anglo state at that point. It was much smaller than it is now. It’s probably half the size of number of kids in the public school system. It was majority Anglo, and it was very low performing.

When you take those old data … Not all states participated back in those days. All states started participating in NAEP in 2003, so it’s a little spotty. But going back and looking at that data, breaking it down by subgroups and things like that, Alabama was the lowest performing state back then, they still are now, and usually Arizona would be the second to lowest. Because we have a very large elderly population, and we also have large numbers of kids, we have large average family sizes here, a lot of Catholic families in Arizona. But you don’t have that many people in the middle paying the taxes. Elderly people has been empirically studied. They vote against bonds, and overrides, and things like that, so our spending per pupil was low. When that demographic profile is not designed to win the spending per pupil contest. It’s just not. Okay?

So, we were predominately Anglo, relative low spending, and very low performing, and struggling to keep up with enrollment growth. Okay? That was another defining characteristic of the system back then. The state was literally bankrupting itself trying to keep up with building new district buildings fast enough to accommodate enrollment growth, and the average results were bad. Okay? So, all the way back in 1994 … And this situation is hard for a lot of people back east to get their heads around because it’s just not the world they’ve ever lived in.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: Maryland has never struggled to cope with enrollment growth anytime recently. At least not Arizona style enrollment growth. So, in 1994, really the first generation of visionary leaders, I would say, were people like Lisa Graham Keegan and Tom Patterson in the legislature. Someone shows up in Arizona and says, “Hey, up in Minnesota they’ve got this idea called a charter school. If you pass a charter school law, you’ll have educators that go and open new schools, and you get new school space, and the state doesn’t even pay for the space.” Unlike the consensus back east … Back east, there’s always this, “Oh my gosh, what if someone opens a bad charter school?” Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: You’re sitting here in Arizona, and you’re paying 400 to 500 million dollars a year for new districts and schools, and results are just … they’re not great. So, the governor at that time was a gentleman named Fife Symington, and Lisa Graham Keegan, and Tom Patterson, and Fife Symington basically said, “Give me the dice.” What do I have to lose?

Brian McGrath: Right. It’s not going to get any worse, so let’s try something different.

Matt Ladner: So, they passed a very liberal charter school law. Then in 1997, Arizona passed the first scholarship tax credit program. This was widely emulated since then, and expanded a number of subsequent years. We now have three different scholarship tax credit programs, one for middle and lower income kids, one is universal, and another is for kids with disabilities. Then in 2011, Arizona lawmakers passed the nation’s first education savings account program. The good thing about all of this is that it set Arizona on a path to a virtuous cycle, and it’s a virtuous cycle that I don’t believe we’ve seen in any other states yet. But this is how it played out.

Some of it was just really wise policy on the part of our lawmakers, and some of it was just random chance. But Arizona’s big improvement in academic performance actually started after 2009. It’s not what you would expect because this was the Great Recession, and the Great Recession was brutal on Arizona’s economy. Our economy was then, and to a lesser extent still is, very dependent on housing. We build houses and golf courses for the rest of you to enjoy when you decide to move to Arizona.

Brian McGrath: Thank you for doing that. I enjoyed it just last spring.

Matt Ladner: Yep. So, all of a sudden, the last thing you want when you’re Arizona is a nationwide housing led economic collapse. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: And so, you can’t sell your house in Illinois and join the other Cubs fans here in Arizona. Suddenly the state’s economy is in a very, very bad fix. There was a 20% reduction in general fund revenue in Arizona in 2009. Just poof, gone. So this would be exactly not the period you would expect Arizona to start leading the nation in academic gains. But it’s actually what happened. Part of what happened in this virtuous cycle was that if you were a high demand charter school organization, and you were still able to access financing during the Great Recession, which was a trick … this was no small thing. But if you were in that situation … And charter schools had their funding cut during this period, too, so it was tough for everyone. You were able to access school facilities in a way that may never happen again. They were literally facilities that had been asking for 25 million dollars before the Great Recession that were selling for seven million dollars.

Brian McGrath: So the schools were able to find these elusive buildings that many places where they have charter laws, they don’t grow because you don’t have capital to buy buildings or build buildings, so they were-

Matt Ladner: Right.

Brian McGrath: They were the beneficiary of a housing and facilities downturn. That’s a fascinating quirk of fate.

Matt Ladner: Right. It actually sparked this virtuous cycle, I think, because what happened is that … So, you had a very large increase in charter school enrollment. You had also increases, but much smaller, in private choice. This is also the period where we invented the ESA program, and the tax credit programs grew. The net result of that was, is that when we finally got data about how much open enrollment was happening in the districts, and that happened years after the Great Recession, lo and behold, we find out that about a third of the students in the Phoenix area, which is 67% of the students in Arizona are here in the Phoenix metro area, okay. Well, lo and behold, we finally get some data on this, and a third of them are using open enrollment, a third of district kids.

Brian McGrath: Wow.

Matt Ladner: Okay? That doesn’t mean they’re always switching districts. Sometimes they’re moving within schools, within districts, and sometimes between districts. We’re defining open enrollment here as you’re attending a district school, but you’re not attending you’re assigned district school. Between a third of students doing open enrollment, and at this time, the data was 16% of kids attending charter schools. That’s more like 21% now. Put in our private school kids and homeschool kids, it’s a majority of kids in the Phoenix area are not attending their zone district school.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: Okay? I think the dominoes here was the expansion of choice, the more active participation of especially suburban districts in open enrollment, and that started with this virtuous cycle. For instance, the Scottsdale Unified School District, where you played golf the other day, Brian-

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: That district has 22,000 students, and 4,000 of the 22,000 are from outside of Scottsdale Unified’s attendance boundaries. Okay? That’s very unusual for a fancy suburban district.

Brian McGrath: Actually, let me ask you about that. Were they okay with that? Did the suburban school districts, or even the urban ones buy into this from the get go, or was there some build up to, “Hey, we know this is inevitable, so we might as well benefit”? How did the public react when choice was rolled out? Because you gave the timeline. It took about from ’94, the first charter, to 2011, which is ESA, and there’s some things in between there, I know. So how did the public react to all this introduction of choice? Was there a fight? Was it like, “Thank goodness we have more choices,” or did they … Arizona has a bit of an independent libertarian streak, if I recall from my time out there. Did they just go with it, or what was the feedback from the public?

Matt Ladner: Well, it’s been very interesting because the very same forces that I would argue have led to Arizona’s academic improvement. All right? If somebody had been drafting a fantasy football team of states, like, “Let’s pick the states that are going to lead the nation in academic gains,” right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: Doing this draft in 2009, Arizona would have been the shy, last kid picked, sitting there embarrassed against the wall, hoping someone … And yet, somehow we’re jumping from the free throw line and dunking.

Brian McGrath: Right. Who is this kid? Hey, you’ve been hustling us all this time.

Matt Ladner: Right. Now look, we can never say policy X obviously resulted in academic gains. There’s too many things going on all at the same time. But, I will say this. You would struggle to name anything else about Arizona K-12 that is unique.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: We test. Everyone tests. We do grade schools A to F. But quite frankly, we’ve turned that system off a number of years, then turned it back on. It’s not a very plausible source for a gigantic amount of academic improvement. We still don’t spend very high compared to the national average. Our demographics, our age demography hasn’t changed. We still have a lot of old people and a lot of kids. But we do have an unusually large amount of choice going on.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, sounds like it.

Matt Ladner: So it’s the prime suspect, in my view. But getting back to your question, though, the reaction to this has been difficult, and the reality is that school choice is being done primarily by school districts. That study I told you about open enrollment-

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: There were almost two open enrollment kids for every charter school kid, and the number of charter school kids greatly outnumber the number of choice kids. Okay? So if we’re going to make the Justice League of school choice in Arizona, the school districts are Superman. Okay? The charter schools are Batman, and private choice is like Robin. Okay? That’s not to diminish Robin because we all … If you’ve read enough comic books, you always come up on one where Robin somehow saves the day after Batman has been captured. In other words, there are plenty of kids whose solution, the school they need, is not a public or charter school. They exist, and we’re very fortunate to have these programs to serve them. But the King Kong here, the ultimate in the room, is the school districts. Despite that fact, and a district school both gains and loses students through open enrollment. You lose some, you gain some. Having said all that, there are the district schools that overall don’t do well in open enrollment. They’ve either been flat in their enrollment for a long time, or some of them are actually declined. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: I would say that over the last six, seven years, those people have become very politically active, and they’re angry, and they’re looking for someone to blame, and it’s not the school districts.

Brian McGrath: You’re right. It’s those choice people who are ruining everything for the rest of us.

Matt Ladner: Right. Somehow Robin is destroying public education, but Superman is not. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right, right. Are they losing students because of academic performance, do you think, or are there other … There’s always other things, as you alluded to earlier, but are they in areas that people just don’t want to live anymore, or are they-

Matt Ladner: Yeah.

Brian McGrath: Are they just bad at their job, as it were? What’s the reason you think they’re losing students?

Matt Ladner: Yes, number one, there’s multiple reasons. There are districts where population has just aged past having school age kids. Sometimes you have very high quality schools in that situation, and they actually open up and bring in kids through open enrollment. If they didn’t, they would have to wind up reducing their staffs, and then maybe even closing. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: No one ever tells that part of the story. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: That story is totally off stage. The only story you hear is our budgets are suffering, they’re out to destroy public schools, etc., etc., etc. right? It really does boil down to, philosophically, the question, why do we spend money on K-12? People that fall into my camp, we believe that we spend money on K-12 in order to equip students with the academic knowledge, skills, and habits they need for success in life. Some of our opponents seem to believe that we spend money on K-12 in order to preserve a certain system of schools. That clash is prevalent in Arizona politics. But the real struggle is not between district schools and charter schools, and it is not between district schools and private schools. The real tension in the system is between high demand schools and low demand schools. Those high demand district schools are doing just fine.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. Yeah, that would make sense, right? That’s always been the theory that the competition would make schools better and whatnot, and they would thrive, and others wouldn’t, then the market would sort it out. Some people don’t like that, to use the market terminology, but I think it may be working out that way in Arizona, from what I can hear.

Matt Ladner: Yeah.

Brian McGrath: Let me ask you this. The question’s a little more vague, I guess, if I would use your Arizona experience. But what would you say the most oversold opposition argument to school choice is that you’ve seen in Arizona, whether … I’ll just let you answer that. Then on the flip side of that, what do you think the most oversold pro school choice argument you’ve seen is? I’m asking you these questions so that, as a guy who’s been around this for a long time, and maybe somebody out there is getting ready to start a program in their state, they can gain from your wisdom. But what do you think on those two things?

Matt Ladner: On the oversold side, ironically, I’d have to say that it is the emphasis on test scores.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: Despite the fact that we’ve spent the first 20 minutes here talking about test scores. Yeah. It’s not that we should not talk about test scores, or that it shouldn’t be a part of the conversation, but I think that it’s way more important to talk about school choice as a source of variety and pluralism in schooling. I think that a lot of us in the school choice movement tend to be test score nerds and that sort of thing. We know from research that your organization has done that most people aren’t. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right, right. Most people don’t care about that as, number one, they want to see goals and some marker of success, but they’re not picking a school necessarily because their test scores are better than the school next door. There’s lot of factors that go into it.

Matt Ladner: Right. I think the secret sauce of choice is to be able to match your child with the strengths of a particular school. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: I have a piece coming out soon where I talk about school variety that is available in the Phoenix elementary school districts, so this is a downtown Phoenix, high poverty area. When you go and dig into the results, number one, both the district and the charter schools have high levels of academic growth. It’s pretty good. Number two, there are two arts based schools, both of which are charters. There are two Montessori schools, one of which is a charter, one of which is a district. Arizona State University has a very prominent charter school there. These schools don’t all look the same. They are meaningfully different from each other, and that source of strength is something that you can’t replace from any other mechanism. There’s no mechanism that’s going to keep … the state could wave a magic wand and your kid’s going to be interested in going to school.

Now, if your kid happens to like to play trumpet, and you go to the Arizona School for the Arts, they are likely to get more engaged in their schooling because they’re getting to do something they really appreciate. That’s really the secret sauce that I would say that it’s under emphasized in the way we talk about schooling.

Brian McGrath: So the mix of schooling being as important as the actual outcome of some of the test scores or other things that we measure, which I think is right. When I was out your way in the spring, I noticed, just driving around, there was three or four different types of school all on this one street within a couple miles of each other. I was like, “Oh, look, there’s a Montessori,” and, “Hey, look, there’s a charter,” and, “Oh, look, there’s public school 101,” or whatever it was. Knowing a little bit about it, I wasn’t surprised. But it was interesting to see it in person, to see that mix.

Matt Ladner: I’ve heard people say this for years, but the New York City school system can’t even be bothered to come up with names for their schools.

Brian McGrath: Right. You’re right. I’ve always wondered about that, too. Why just use a generic number? How could you be excited about that as a kid? Hey, I’m part of public school eight, go eight.

Matt Ladner: That’s just antithetical to the way humans actually work. We make choices about our lives in every other field, and yet we, circa the end of the 20th century, we had almost entirely standardized the education system in this country, and that was the goal.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: We’re going to have state academic standards, everybody is going to study the same stuff. It was almost like … There was an old saying about the education system in France, that the Minister of Education in Paris could look at his watch and know what every fifth grader in the country was learning right that very moment.

Brian McGrath: Right. Right.

Matt Ladner: I’m an American, and I don’t want that. [crosstalk 00:24:19]

Brian McGrath: That’s not our model. And I think you’re right, that may be the best argument. I think when you talk to people about choice who maybe aren’t as engaged in it, or don’t care as much, they do get that. The biggest argument I can notice lately, and that’s not new, but the opposition seems to focus a lot on just the dollars. They don’t even seems to fight about the opportunities, or other kinds of schools, or things that we think are important. It’s all about the money. But coming back to that, then, so what do you think their most … the opposition to choice’s most overused, ineffective argument has been that you’ve seen in your two decades of this stuff?

Matt Ladner: Yeah, the focus on spending has to be … It just has to be the … I mentioned earlier, in the Great Recession in Arizona, we really went through the ringer. It was hard, and if you ran a school district, or a district school, or a charter school, or whatever, your life was not pleasant. You were letting people go. These kind of cuts were not the, “Oh gee, shucks, our spending didn’t go up as much as we hoped,” kind of cuts. These were the actual 15 to 20%.

Brian McGrath: Right, the stuff they always threaten about or talk about, but never actually happens, it actually happened. Yeah.

Matt Ladner: Yeah. Okay? This is letting people go. Right. And it wasn’t fun. But during that same period, Arizona students made statistically significant gains in all six NAEP exams, fourth, eighth grade, math, reading, and science. How? You’re not supposed to get giant funding cuts and see big academic gains. But this is exactly what happened. Right? So if we were going to spend our way to high quality schools in America, we would have done it decades ago. We tried, we keep trying, and it keeps failing. But we just didn’t do it right, so let’s try again.

Brian McGrath: Right, exactly. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t done the right way. It wasn’t spent the right places. Too many strings. Yeah, no, I hear you on that. When you talk about different types of schools, and I guess it’s probably still too early to tell, but the pod learning phenomenon I know has taken off in Arizona, and if you were looking out a couple years … Let’s not look in the immediate because sometimes we look at the immediate and think something’s true. But if you’re projecting out five years, do you think pods will still be a thing, or will they have morphed into something else, or will people choose to be that engaged over the long haul? They created, or not entirely created, but during the pandemic they became at least a term most people knew. But do you think they have legs five years down the road?

Matt Ladner: I do. In fact, I remember in Education Next in 2017, someone dared a prediction that said five to 10 years from now, I think that these things may have grown a lot faster than anyone expected. Well, bingo, you’re right. I am hopeful about the advent of micro schools, and I think this is one of Arizona’s gifts to the country, is that … We weren’t the first to do charter schools, but we were the first to really let them go.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: We actually went to parents, and to teachers, and educators. If you’ve ever been around a group of public school teachers, ever, what happens? 10, 15 minutes and they’re complaining about administration.

Brian McGrath: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Matt Ladner: Arizona was the state that basically went to them and said, “Don’t tell me. Show me.”

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: What would you do if you ran your own school? Because we’re going to make that possible for you. Okay? You can either keep complaining about your administration, or you can show them how to do it. Which one? Okay? Now, the people that showed them how to do it, they did that. The academic results from Arizona’s charter schools are very strong. So we didn’t invent charter schools, but we were more enthusiastic about it than anywhere else. We have a bigger charter school sector than anywhere else in the country. We don’t have the biggest scholarship tax credit program, but we were the first one to make scholarship tax credit programs. We don’t have the biggest ESA program, but we were the first one to do ESAs.

I think it very well may be the case that some of the things you see going on in micro schooling in Arizona are of similar scale, and maybe even greater importance. It remains to be seen. But if you’ve ever read Matt Ridley’s book about innovation, one of the points that he makes is that it usually happens because people take preexisting technologies and figure out some new way to combine them.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: Fracking would be the perfect example of this. That was a combination of horizontal drilling and this cracking rock for dynamite or whatever they do down there, both of which have existed for many years. But these wildcatters out in Texas spent 17 years figuring out how to put them together. Maybe some people like fracking, some people don’t. But there’s no doubt that it revolutionized the energy world. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: The United States went from being the biggest importer of oil and gas to the biggest exporter in very short order. I think that the legacy of the COVID pandemic is likely to be … and not just in education, but a variety of things, is an accelerator of preexisting trends. Shopping malls were already in trouble before COVID. Now they’re in really deep trouble. Newspapers were already in trouble before COVID. Now they’re in really deep trouble. Micro schools were already a thing before COVID. My interest in micro schools started when I read a Wired Magazine article in 2015 called … I think it was called The Rise of Homeschooling in Silicon Valley. Reading this article was just like, wow, this.

Brian McGrath: Right. What is this thing? That looks cool.

Matt Ladner: That’s exactly what it was. Because when you read the article, it wasn’t about homeschooling. It was really about micro schooling. Basically, what was being described here was people could do the normal thing. The normal thing would be to put your kids in a school during the day, let them do a bunch of extracurricular stuff in the evenings. This is also known as the, “I’m exhausted by driving Madison,” story. I’m exhausted by driving Madison to this lesson, to Kumon, to whatever, club, sports, whatever. Upper middle class Americans have been doing this for decades. We’re doing more and more of it all the time. We put the kid in school, but we aren’t totally reliant on that school. We want to give them an edge by doing X, Y, and Z. Well, what was going on in that Wired Magazine article was, what if you turned X, Y, and Z into school?

Brian McGrath: Right, yeah. And gave it to everybody.

Matt Ladner: They never stated this, but basically, the message of this story is that software engineers in Silicon Valley had figured out that the time opportunity cost of attending a normal school was not worth it if you do things right, according to them. I was just like, wow. Wow, that’s a thing. We saw the advent of things like Wildflower Schools, and Acton Academy, micro schools happening. Because this is all happening beforehand. But it wasn’t a coincidence that when COVID, the pandemic struck, that it was basically Silicon Valley people who created this … I don’t know what you would call it, a rebrand? We’re not going to call it a homeschool coop. We’re not going to call it micro school. We’re going to call it a pandemic pod. And it was a Facebook group from Silicon Valley that took the lead on that.

I’m very encouraged by the combination of … If you think of a micro school as a combination of different things, like Matt Ridley, or as a gumbo, what are the ingredients of a gumbo? The ones that I am most encouraged by are combining digitally based mastery learning. So, meet the kid where they are and let them proceed at their own pace, and only proceed when they actually learn what they need to learn. They’re combining that sort of system with custodial care, because these schools are … They are fundamentally social, which is, I think, part of the veilings of our … maybe a decade ago when MOOCs first came out, and everybody was going to get three PhDs from Yale or whatever. We shouldn’t totally dismiss that because the Achilles heel of MOOCs, obviously, is the low completion rate.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: Even with the low completion rates, there’s still a lot of people doing them. But yeah, I think one of the things we’ve learned over the last decade is that education, for most people, is fundamentally social. Most people want and need classmates, an in person instructor, these sort of things. The idea that we could do without it … and some kids can, but a lot of kids can’t. Okay?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: So, the micro school movements that we see now, they scratch that itch. You’ve got classmates, you’ve got a community, and actually, they’re small communities, and they’re tight knit. So I think part of the secret sauce here is that in these small learning communities, you simply cannot fade into the background. I know I’ve done this. I’m sure, Brian, you never did this in school. There might have been a few times where maybe I hadn’t done the reading, and moved back, hoping [crosstalk 00:34:21] answer the question.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. Right, exactly. That guy always wants to be the one who gets to answer. I’ll just sit in the back and pray for an hour that they don’t call on me.

Matt Ladner: So, when you have 11 classmates, it’s hard to do that, and a lot of your learning is happening at, again, self-paced.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: I’ve seen surveys of kids asked about their previous school, and 30% of them will say, “I was hopelessly lost,” and another 30% would say, “I was bored out of my mind.”

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: Meeting kids where they are and letting them progress at their own pace is a big, big, big, big deal if you can figure out how to make work. Okay? But the next part of the gumbo, and I would say it’s the secret sauce, is project based learning. I’ve visited schools, and the rhythm is like, the kids together and they’re doing their mastery based learning on their own pace, mostly through the computers. They break, they have lunch, social activities, and then the remainder of the day is based on projects. The George Lucas Foundation actually released four studies back in February of 2021. Three of the four [inaudible 00:35:35] studies, all four were done by reputable academics from around the country, University of Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford. And they all found big, positive results associated with project based learning.

That’s good, but this is mostly … We’re getting back to test scores. What I can tell you, Brian, is that when you go visit one of these schools and you see the kids doing the projects, you’re like, “Man, this looks like fun.” These kids are having a blast. I visited a Prenda micro school out in San Carlos, Arizona, one of our Native American reservations. This is a school that’s been surrounded by D and F rated district schools for as long as they’ve been grading. The schools get a lot of money. They get a lot of federal money. Performance is not great, and I’m not saying that’s necessarily all the district’s fault or anything, but it is what it is. They may or may not be a part of the problem, but they’re definitely not the solution. Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: I got to go watch these kids doing 3D printing design, and they were absolutely crushing it, and they were having a complete blast. I think this is really why, even before anyone has ever been able to see any kind of testing data, that Prenda had 700 kids enrolled pandemic broke out, and as of late spring of 2021, they were over 4,000.

Brian McGrath: Yes.

Matt Ladner: It’s not because tiger moms looking at the Stanford 10 scores going, “Give me, give me.” Although that may come.

Brian McGrath: Right, yeah. But the kids having fun in school has got to be … Every parent … I have three school age kids, and the struggle every day is, “What did you do at school today,” and trying to get a sense of are they enjoying any of it. Too often, the answer is no. It’s different on different things, but for the most part, and a lot of schools, it’s just how do you get them to get something out of the experience that’s not just the, “Well, we’ve got to take the test next week and see how that goes.” We’ve sucked the joy out of it a lot. I think there’s more and more people talking about that, but it’s how you fix it is … These pods and micro schools may be part of the answer as long as enough people do them.

I like how you talk about Arizona like you weren’t the first to do this, but you did it better than everybody else, and now we can all benefit from that. What’s the next great thing that Arizona is going to show us how to do better that we might export? Is it a refined micro schooling? What do you see out there, again, on a future horizon, not necessarily happening this very second?

Matt Ladner: Yeah, if I had to place bets now, it would be micro schooling. We can’t know just how big this is going to get yet, but I think it’s very safe to say it’s bigger than it is now. And again, I think that it very well may be the case that you see even districts starting to do that. Right?

Brian McGrath: Yeah. I think some of them do it already, actually. I’ve read a couple different stories in the last year where districts have created … They call them something different, but it’s basically a subset of what they do already, and they do some different things, and very micro school-ish.

Matt Ladner: It’s really fascinating because when you look at the districts, again, they’re performing much better than they did in the past, and there’s high rates of academic growth in Arizona’s districts, and it’s accredited to them. And it’s accredited to them that they are so active in the choice market. Right?

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Matt Ladner: This isn’t a heavy-handed, we’re going to hit you over the head and turn every district school into a charter school, or anything like that. This is more like, these are the incentives, you figure out how you’re going to respond to those incentives. And so, I think the next big thing besides micro schools very well may be that you may start to see districts starting to replicate high demand schools themselves. Okay? Now, the politics of this are so basic that I don’t think most people even … Well, it’s hard to say, but there are district schools in Arizona with giant wait lists. Why? Well, why don’t those schools add seats, and why don’t they create second schools, and third schools, and fourth schools?

In fact, to use the Scottsdale example again, Scottsdale has a lot of empty space in their district. They have 22,000 kids, but they’re built for 30,000 something kids. And they have particular schools that have long wait lists. So, I don’t know. If you wanted to maximize your enrollment, you might want to create a second, a third, a fourth of the schools with the wait list. Now, why doesn’t that happen? That doesn’t happen anywhere. It’s very rare. Look at the magnet school movement, for instance. It’s older than charter schools, but there are fewer magnet schools than charter schools, and the real basic politics of this are the same. You don’t see a lot of districts going hog wild with magnet schools because the other schools view them as a threat to their enrollment. Okay? Right?

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: If you’re Scottsdale Unified, and you’re one of the, say, under enrolled schools in Scottsdale Unified, and someone … In fact, we don’t even get to this point, mostly because it’s off the table. It’s not even up for discussion. But if the schools with a wait list come and say, “You know what? You know what I really need is a bigger building so I can take the kids off my wait list,” many of whom will not be from Scottsdale, by the way, so you’ve got that going, and other schools are going to view that the same they view as a new charter school opening, which is to say they’re going to take a dim view of it.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Matt Ladner: So, the question is, can we reach the point where districts start to act like … Where we really get the scaling in our system right now is in the charter school sector. Charter schools use their wait list as evidence to give to the financiers to show, “Look, there are people that want us. This is why you should give us a loan.” And on it goes. I think that the critical threshold that we very well may pass through in the not so distant future, and are starting to see little hints of it here and there, here and there, and so on, is that you will see that some of these districts go, “Yeah, it’s time for us to do this.” If we were to expand high demand schools, well give them more kids, and then kids would be better served.

The politics of that are very difficult, the no organized interest. Mostly the unionized employee interests are not keen on this. In fact, during the pandemic, our largest school district had a proposal that they were going to open up a number of micro schools, and there was a school board meeting, and a lot of flat Earth opposition. But there are some really, very capable visionary, even, leaders in Arizona school districts, and if they can navigate through these politics, then the future could be really bright because we’ve already got scaling going on in the charter sector. If the high performing districts started to scale, too, we might really be cooking with gas.

Brian McGrath: That’s great. Well, Matt, thanks so much for sharing that story about Arizona. It clearly is a model that other states can follow as choice continues to expand at a rapid pace. As you mentioned earlier, Indiana is trying to nip on your heels, and we have some advantages, too. But it was great this year to see places like West Virginia and Kentucky, others, join the fray. So, we’ll continue to look to Arizona for new ideas, and how to do things better, and continue to follow your work as you tell us that story. Thanks so much for joining us today, Matt.

Matt Ladner: Thank you, Brian.