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Putting Arizona’s Empty Schools to Use Can Improve Education and Save Money

February 12, 2019

February 12, 2019

Phoenix—Enrollment in Arizona’s public schools—including both charter and traditional district schools—has grown by more than 25 percent since 2000. Yet more than 1.4 million square feet of school district building space currently sits vacant or is underutilized. The good news is, those empty schools can be put to valuable use, which would benefit students and Arizona taxpayers, as a new report from the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Chamber Foundation reveals.

In Empty Schools Full of Promise: Exploring the Benefits of District-Charter Co-location Partnerships in Arizona, Goldwater Institute Director of Education Policy Matt Beienburg and Arizona Chamber Foundation Senior Research Strategist Matthew Ladner examine how having charter schools and traditional public schools operate on the same campuses—known as charter-district co-location—can yield benefits for Arizona schools while also ameliorating the state’s glut of vacant or underused school space. “Co-location pairs district schools that have unused space on their campuses with charter schools—who often struggle to find suitable or affordable classroom facilities, since the state does not actively provide them with buildings like it does for district schools,” Beienburg said.

While Arizona hasn’t yet embraced co-location, other states like California and New York are fostering it. In some places, charter schools have the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused school facilities. And in California, school districts are required to make space available to all charter schools operating in their district, and the provided facilities must be “reasonably equivalent” to those used by the district schools.

In the places where co-location is being practiced, the resulting cost savings paid off for students’ education. The report’s authors found that if Arizona school districts leased surplus property to charter schools at similar rates as in Georgia, California, and New York, the savings could reach $21-$38 million per year.

And fortunately, this cost savings can be reinvested to benefit students’ education. “District schools that share their campus with a charter school have been found to better allocate their resources toward student learning, increasing their spending on instruction, rather than other areas, by 8.9 percent in response to the charter school’s arrival. In Arizona, this would translate to an additional $390 per student, or $7,800 per classroom of 20 students,” said Beienburg. “When districts are able to shift their priorities away from the upkeep of excess facilities and toward classroom instruction, their students come out ahead.”

With the positive results co-location can yield for students, schools, and taxpayers, Arizona—and other states—ought to take steps to encourage charter-district co-location.

“Tens of thousands of Arizona families are waiting for their opportunity to attend high-demand district and charter schools. Meanwhile, we have millions of square feet of underutilized school space waiting to be filled with a quality model,” Ladner said. “The more wisely we use our existing classroom space, the more dollars we can invest in our students and teachers. This paper lays out a path to do just that.”

Read the full report here.


About the Arizona Chamber Foundation

The Arizona Chamber Foundation is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to expanding economic opportunity in Arizona through research and initiatives that focus on the core drivers of prosperity. We are committed to a non-partisan, research-driven approach that analyzes the issues impacting Arizona’s economy. It houses the A for Arizona and Chamber Business News initiatives and Arizona Industry Fellows project. Find out more at

About the Goldwater Institute

The Goldwater Institute drives results by working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and strengthen the freedom guaranteed to all Americans in the constitutions of the United States and all 50 states. With the blessing of its namesake, the Goldwater Institute opened in 1988. Its early years focused on defending liberty in Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Today, the Goldwater Institute is a national leader for constitutionally limited government respected by the left and right for its adherence to principle and real-world impact. No less a liberal icon than the New York Timescalls the Goldwater Institute a “watchdog for conservative ideals” that plays an “outsize role” in American political life.



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