David Safier is a journalist in Tucson who often writes about education.

He wrote the following two articles about charters, enrollment decline, and white flight in Tucson.


A Multi-Factored Look At TUSD’s Enrollment Decline

POSTED BY  ON THU, JUN 20, 2019 AT 1:32 PM


Tucson Unified School District has been losing students steadily since 2000. Lots of students. At its turn-of-the-millenium high point, the district had 62,500 students. This school year, the number was 46,000. That’s a loss of 16,500 students, over 900 a year.

Why is TUSD losing students year after year? The answer you’re most likely to hear is, the district is the problem. It’s the administration. It’s the teachers. It’s the curriculum. It’s “D,” all of the above. Fix the administration, fix the teachers, fix the curriculum, and the numbers will climb.

But the standard answer is far too simple. The district may deserve part of the blame for declining enrollment, but most of the drop was inevitable, created by changes in Arizona’s educational landscape and a slowing of Tucson’s population growth.

For the sake of argument, let’s start with the assumption that TUSD is no better or worse now than it was at its 2000 high water mark of 62,500 students and see what else is causing the district to lose students.

I see three factors beyond the control of the district as the major reasons for the enrollment decline. 

Two of the factors were created by the Arizona legislature’s push for “school choice.” The first is the emergence of charter schools. The competition for a limited pool of students means that every student inside the TUSD boundaries who attends a charter is one less student in the district. The second is the state’s open enrollment policy, which lets parents send their children to schools in nearby districts. Open enrollment gets far less attention than charter schools, but it is a significant force pulling students living inside the TUSD boundaries to suburban school districts with more affluent, whiter populations.

The third important factor is the slowdown of Tucson’s population growth. Students lost to charter schools and open enrollment haven’t been replaced by an influx of new students.

Let’s look at the factors one by one.

Charter Schools

Arizona’s first charter schools opened their doors in 1995. They grew steadily, but since they started from zero, it took awhile for them to have an impact on school districts’ enrollment numbers.

In 2000, 50,000 Arizona students were enrolled in charters. I don’t have any direct data on how many of those charter students lived inside the TUSD boundaries, but a reasonable estimate is about 3,500. TUSD students made up about 7 percent of the state’s public school population in 2000, and 3,500 is 7 percent of the state’s charter school population.

Assuming charters exert the same draw on Tucson-area students as they do in Arizona’s other urban areas, about 13,000 students who would otherwise be in TUSD are now attending charters, 9,500 of those added since 2000.

So we can subtract 9,500 from TUSD’s student population since 2000 due to the advent of charter schools.

Open Enrollment

In 2019, TUSD had 16,000 fewer Anglo students than it did in 2000, a number, not coincidentally, almost identical to the district’s overall enrollment decline of 16,500. Where did those students go?

Anglo parents who moved out of the city with their children during those years account for some of the decline. In 2018, Tucson had about 5,000 fewer Anglo residents than in 2000. A significant portion of charter school students are Anglo, accounting for more of the decline. But those two factors don’t add up to all the Anglo students who left TUSD. Open enrollment played a significant role as well.

Open enrollment became state law at the same time the first charter schools opened their doors. With open enrollment, students were no longer bound to the attendance area of their local schools. For the first time, if a district school anywhere had an empty desk, any student could fill it regardless of where he or she lived. That means parents can pick and choose between schools inside or outside their home districts.

Open enrollment doesn’t get much press coverage, but it is a major change in the options parents have when choosing schools for their children. For TUSD, it has led inevitably to parents living in the district sending their children to schools in neighboring districts. Districts like Catalina Foothills and Vail are two big draws for TUSD-area parents who want their children to have the kind of education offered in affluent suburbs, and other nearby districts may pull some students from the TUSD areas as well. Other than University High, TUSD has few schools which draw a significant number of out-of-district students.

Think of open enrollment as the most recent version of “white flight.”

Before there was an open enrollment policy, beginning in the 1960s, Anglo families around the country fled from cities and moved to the suburbs in search of schools they believed would give their children a better education. White flight hit TUSD the hardest from 1975 though 1985, with the district’s Anglo student population dropping by 10,000. After 1985, the number of Anglo students in the district stabilized until 2000, when it began dropping again.

With open enrollment, Anglo families — and, of course, families from other ethnic groups — could send their children wherever they wanted without hanging a “For Sale” sign on their homes. All they needed were nearby districts with room for out-of-district students and the ability to transport their children to those schools.

I don’t have solid figures for the number of students living inside TUSD boundaries who attend nearby school districts, but it looks to be in the thousands.

Catalina Foothills School District is one of the places where parents living in the TUSD boundaries are likely to send their children. According to the CFSD website, 3,000 students used open enrollment last year. That’s an extraordinarily large number for a district of 5,200 students, far more than you would expect from in-district parents opting to send their children to a school outside their attendance area. 

Some of the people making use of the open enrollment policy are certainly district residents. But CFSD has only one high school, meaning there cannot be in-district high school transfers. When you take the approximately 1,700 students attending Catalina Foothills High from the district total, that only leaves 3,500 attending the district’s two middle schools and five elementary schools. It’s unlikely that more than a few hundred of the open enrollment students are children living in the district whose parents choose to send them to a district elementary or middle school outside their enrollment area.

A high percentage of the 3,000 open enrollment students are likely to be from outside the district. They can come from any nearby district, but because of the number of students living in the TUSD attendance area and the likelihood of a significant number of those parents wanting to place their children in a suburban school, it’s probable TUSD students make up the largest group of out-of-district students.

Vail is the other affluent district adjacent to TUSD. Because it sits to the southeast of Tucson, away from other suburban population centers, most out-of-district students are likely to come from TUSD.

Unlike Catalina Foothills, Vail doesn’t list how many of its 4,000 students take advantage of open enrollment. I know from anecdotal evidence that Vail actively courts TUSD students, but I don’t know how many attend schools in the district.

I can only estimate a range for the number of students living in the TUSD area who attend schools in other districts since I don’t have hard figures to go on. I’ll put that number at anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 students, acknowledging it could be lower or higher.

Tucson’s Population

To say Tucson has grown since the beginning of the 20th century is an understatement. In 1900 it was a small town of 7,500 residents. By 1950, its population had increased six times, to 45,000 residents. In the next decade the city had a growth spurt. By 1960, the population tripled to 213,000.

After 1960, the city settled into a slower but steady pattern of population growth of about 20 percent per decade. Tucson took 40 years to double its population again, reaching 487,000 residents in 2000.

Then in 2000, the city’s population growth hit a wall. It continued growing, but at a quarter the rate of the earlier four decades, adding just 46,000 people by 2017. If it had continued at the post-1960 rate, it would have added 180,000 people.

It was at the beginning of the slowdown in population growth that TUSD began losing students.

If Tucson’s population growth had been higher since 2000, newly arriving students would have masked the loss to charter schools and open enrollment by replacing the students who went elsewhere. But the slow growth meant, when parents chose to send their children to charters or to schools in neighboring districts, they made a large dent in TUSD’s enrollment numbers.

Population Movement Within Tucson

The number of students who I have estimated live in the TUSD area but attend charter schools or other districts is 4,000 to 5,000 students short of the actual 16,500 drop in enrollment. It may be that my charter and open enrollment estimates are low. I believe they are, but I would rather lowball the numbers than inflate them. However, there is another aspect of TUSD’s enrollment decline I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the shifts in population within Tucson.

Four school districts other than TUSD have part of their enrollment areas inside the city of Tucson. Flowing Wells and Amphitheater school districts are on the northwest corner of the city, Vail is on the southeast corner and Sunnyside is in the south. That means a number of Tucson children live in those districts’ attendance areas.

I haven’t delved into the Tucson census data in detail, but what I have looked at indicates that, since 2000, the areas served by those four districts have grown faster than the part of Tucson served by TUSD. It makes sense that the outer areas of Tucson would have put on more growth than the more central portion of the city. The rest of the metropolitan area outside of the city of Tucson grew at about three times the rate of the city, so you would expect the area on the periphery of Tucson to follow a similar pattern.

If the Tucson growth patterns I’ve seen in census data are an accurate indication of where Tucson has added people since 2000, that would mean that the population inside the TUSD boundaries hasn’t grown significantly in the last 18 years. It may even have decreased a bit. If true, that would also play a part in TUSD’s enrollment decline.


From 2000 onward, TUSD’s enrollment fell victim to two “school choice” initiatives from the legislature and a slowdown in the city’s population growth.

Whenever charters set up shop in an area, they take students from the local school district, as they did with TUSD. When parents of means decide to take advantage of the state’s open enrollment policies and send their children to schools with high test scores and low numbers of minority students, the students leave TUSD for suburban pastures without actually leaving the city. When those two factors pull students from TUSD and not enough children move into the district to replace them, the district’s enrollment numbers plummet.

That’s what happened in TUSD. Similar factors have led to declines in urban district enrollments around the country. It’s less the quality of the district’s administration, instruction and curriculum than outside forces which have led to shrinking enrollment numbers.

It’s impossible to know if the decline in TUSD enrollment would have been lower if the district had put together more successful efforts to hold onto its students and attract new ones, but the difference would have been a few thousand students. Certainly TUSD could have done better, and it can do better in the future. But most of the student loss over the past 18 years has been due to factors beyond the district’s control.

Why the Common Wisdom About TUSD’s Declining Enrollment Is Wrong

POSTED BY  ON FRI, JUL 5, 2019 AT 1:34 PM

Two men I admire, Jim Nintzel, the editor here at the Weekly, and talk show host John C. Scott, have frustrated the hell out of me recently. Both men know more about Tucson and Arizona than I would if I lived another lifetime. Both are intelligent, perceptive analysts of the political scene. Neither accepts the “common wisdom” just because it’s what other people think.

Well, they don’t accept the common wisdom in most cases, anyway. When it comes to TUSD, though, Scott and Nintzel seem to go along with the prevailing notion that the school district is doing a terrible job and has brought its problems, specifically its loss of students, on itself.

Common wisdom always has a kernel of logic to it. If TUSD has lost an average of 900 students a year for the past 18 years, it’s only logical, it’s something they’ve done. Isn’t it? How can it not be the district’s fault?

The problem is, the common wisdom about TUSD is wrong.

This all came up because of one of my recent posts, A Multi-Factored Look At TUSD’s Enrollment Decline. My main point was that the district’s precipitous enrollment decline over the past 18 years has more to do with outside factors than with the district itself. Two of the factors were created by the state legislature when it green-lighted charter schools and open enrollment in 1994, creating two new forms of competition for students. The third factor is the city’s population, which essentially stopped growing around 2000, meaning TUSD hasn’t had an influx of new students to replace the ones who left.

When I talked about this on John C. Scott’s show, he came back with a litany of sins TUSD has committed which have led to parents pulling their children out of the district — problems with student discipline, poor administration, poor money management and so on. 

Most of what Scott said about TUSD is true, but not his contention that the problems he listed are the primary reasons students have left the district.

Nintzel agreed with me about the mechanism for TUSD’s enrollment decline, but said I haven’t paid enough attention to parents’ dissatisfaction with the district which led them to send their children elsewhere.

Nintzel is right that dissatisfaction with TUSD leads many parents to seek other options for their children, but often, their dissatisfaction has more to do with the changing ethnic and economic makeup of Tucson than anything the district has done.

The arguments made by Scott and Nintzel aren’t wrong factually. They’re wrong in emphasis, putting too much blame on the district and too little on national demographic shifts and Arizona’s Republican politicians’ continuing efforts to dismantle our district-based, publicly run school system by encouraging school privatization. Compound those factors with Tuscon’s glacial population growth over the past few decades, and you have a recipe for plummeting enrollment.

Unfortunately, their views mirror the local “common wisdom” about TUSD. Attacking TUSD has turned into a blood sport, and that’s bad news for the district and the city. When people magnify TUSD’s problems, it encourages even more people to leave the district. And the notion that TUSD is responsible for the problems it faces gives the impression that the district should be able to turn this thing around if it can just get its act together. What the district actually needs is thoughtful, incremental improvements to help it better serve the needs of the community.

Let me lay out what I believe to be true about the changing nature of TUSD and many similar urban districts across the country. Admittedly, this is a subjective view, but it’s based on extensive study of urban education in the U.S.

TUSD is like a lot like urban school districts around the country which find themselves educating an increasing number of low income students, many of whom are African American and Latino. Over the past few decades, the districts’ test scores have declined, and their enrollment has dropped.

The first thing that happens to a school district when a city’s population becomes increasing low income is, student achievement falls. Student achievement correlates more strongly with family income than any other variable, whether in Tucson, in other areas of the U.S. or around the world. Anywhere you look, high income students do better on every academic measure than low income students. Schools matter, of course. Some schools are more successful at raising low income students’ achievement than others. But a scholarly ballpark estimate is that family income is three times more important to students’ academic achievement than the schooling they receive.

No one should be surprised by low test scores at TUSD schools when a majority of their students come from low income families where parents often have a high school education or less. By the same token, no one should be overly impressed with the high test scores in districts like Catalina Foothills and Vail when their students come from homes with comfortable incomes and parents with college educations.

But maybe I’m going too easy on TUSD. Even if it makes sense to expect low test scores from its current student population, should they be as low as they are? Maybe if TUSD had its educational act together, the scores would be higher.

Fine. That a reasonable assertion. Let’s test it out.

If TUSD is doing a lousy job, if schools run by excellent administrators and staffed with competent teachers would get better results, local charter schools with student populations similar to those in TUSD should be kicking the district’s ass. After all, charters aren’t burdened by hide-bound administrations, musty old educational practices, unionized teachers and burdensome state regulations, all of which are said to bring down the quality of school district education. That’s why charters were created, right? To show school districts how it’s done.

Well, Arizona charters have had 25 years to prove they can succeed where school districts fail. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Students at some charters exceed expectations while others perform below the level you might expect. Which is exactly what you find at various schools in TUSD. Specialty schools like BASIS attract successful, motivated students and get stellar results, but the same goes for TUSD’s University High which attracts a similar type of student.

If you ignore the charter hype and look at the numbers, whether it’s in Tucson, across the state or around the country, charters and district schools that share similar student populations tend to group together in their high stakes test scores and other measures of academic success. There isn’t the night-and-day difference you would expect if the districts like TUSD were failures.

With all TUSD’s flaws and shortcomings — as with any educational institution I’ve ever known, it has plenty of flaws and shortcomings — district schools are doing the educational job you would expect them to do with their students, sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse than local charter schools with similar populations.

Here is the conclusion I draw from the district/charter comparison: If local charter schools haven’t been able to put TUSD to shame, then the people of Tucson should stop shaming their district as well.

But that begs the question: If charters are no better than district schools, why do students continue to leave districts and head over to charters? Right now, 15 percent of the state’s school children are in charter schools, and the number keeps growing.

Charters have a few advantages over districts which have nothing to do with the quality of the education they provide. Their growth has been stimulated by the encouragement they have received from our state’s Republican politicians, including those who have run the department of education, since the first charters opened in 1995. And they have gotten additional help from the national school privatization industry which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year pumping up charters’ reputation and infusing the schools with funding beyond what they receive from the state. Put those forces together, and Arizona has the highest percentage of students in charters of any state in the country.

Charters have been sold as the Next Big Educational Thing. And I use the word “sold” advisedly. A full-blown public relations campaign has made charters look like New! Improved! versions of the public schools which preceded them. Parents who are looking for something better for their children hear again and again, charters are the answer.

With charter school names including words like “College” and “Preparatory” and “Academy,” who wouldn’t think the schools will guarantee their children a shot at a college education? With charter cheerleaders chanting, “You say charter, we say BASIS! You say charter, we say BASIS,” who wouldn’t think their children will attend a charter school like BASIS, which claims, falsely, to turn ordinary students into academic superstars?

The rapid growth of charter schools is a matter of PR over performance.

But charters aren’t the only thing drawing students in the TUSD attendance area away from the district’s schools. Open enrollment, which began at the same time as charters, allows parents to enroll their children in any school with an empty desk, in any district they want. That means for the past 25 years, TUSD area parents have been able to load their children into their SUVs and drive them to schools in neighboring districts like Catalina Foothills and Vail.

As with charters, it’s possible to say, if TUSD-area parents take advantage of open enrollment and send their children to schools outside the district — I estimate there are between 3,000 and 6,000 children in that category — that proves TUSD is doing a poor job educating its students. Clearly, the district is driving parents away.

But there is another, more likely explanation which is as old as the push for school integration in the 1950s and 1960s: White Flight. Ever since white parents have seen their children’s schools filling with students from other ethnic groups, they have been fleeing to the suburbs where they built shiny new school buildings filled with students who look like their children and come from similar backgrounds. White flight feeds on itself. The more white parents leave the city, the more black and brown the city schools become, which encourages more white families to follow the earlier emigrants.

According to a population graph on the city of Tucson’s website, Tucson in 1960 was 80 percent Anglo and 18 percent Latino. Latinos became the city’s majority ethnic group in 2015. Currently, Tucson’s population is 37 percent Anglo, 50 percent Latino.

Prior to 1995, Anglos who wanted to send their children to schools in other districts to escape the ethnic diversity of TUSD schools had to pull up stakes and move. Now, with open enrollment, they can stay put and ferry their children across district lines.

I don’t blame TUSD for Whites fleeing the city any more than I blame the African American family which moves into an White neighborhood for the For Sale signs sprouting on their neighbors’ lawns. It is all part of our country’s shameful heritage of racial animus and discrimination.

It’s no coincidence that when TUSD’s enrollment declined by 16,500 from 2000 to 2019, its Anglo enrollment dropped by 16,400 students. 

Regardless of the reasons for TUSD’s declining enrollment, the drop in student population leaves the district in a precarious situation. And we can expect enrollment to continue its decline unless the city’s population takes an upward turn or charter schools become less popular. Either is possible, but neither can be counted on.

Regardless of the reasons for TUSD’s declining enrollment, the district has to marshal whatever powers it has to slow or stop the downward trajectory. One hope is, from knowledge, the district and the city can draw strength. If we understand the underlying causes of the district’s enrollment decline and support the efforts to improve the quality of its education incrementally rather than condemning TUSD out of hand, we have a reasonable chance of creating a stronger, more successful school district.