North Carolina can avoid large, expensive school buildings while working to improve student performance, according to a report recently released by the John Locke Foundation.

“School buildings don’t educate children,” said Dr. Michael Sanera, research director and local government analyst at the foundation. “Our students would be better off if educators spent more time arguing about what goes on inside school buildings than about building construction.”

Sanera’s report highlights a public charter high school in Tucson, Ariz., that ranked third in Newsweek’s list of the nation’s top 100 high schools, even though its square footage and building costs were far less than the typical N.C. high school. Only one North Carolina school ranked in the top 50 in the magazine’s top 100 list.

“In 2004-05, Tucson’s BASIS High School ranked third on the Newsweek list while educating 62 high school students in a space that averaged about 60 square feet per student,” Sanera said. “Building construction cost $9,242 per student. Compare those figures with North Carolina averages for new high school construction during the past three years: 168 square feet per student at a cost of $23,356.

“No students are forced to attend BASIS in a building that, by North Carolina standards, is extremely cramped and inadequate,” he said. “Parents voluntarily send their children to the school because of what happens in the classroom.”

Factors other than bricks and mortar contributed to the Arizona school’s success, Sanera said. “BASIS succeeded because of the vision of its founders, a demanding curriculum, dedicated parents who chose the school, and dedicated teachers who go the extra mile for students,” he said. “None of these factors has anything to do with building size and costs.”

The Arizona school built its entire high school curriculum around objective output measures tied to the College Board’s Advanced Placement tests, Sanera said. Students can finish coursework in three years. Some opt for a senior project that involves internships or studies abroad.

BASIS teachers do not need teaching certificates, Sanera said. “Arizona’s charter school law allows schools to hire teachers based on academic qualifications and teaching ability, not the bureaucracy of teacher certification,” he said. “Teachers do not have tenure. They sign yearly contracts, and they can earn bonuses tied to student performance and their ability to avoid sick days.”

North Carolina could learn lessons from Arizona’s experience, Sanera said. “Schools are defined by what happens inside the building, not the building itself,” he said. “If you have a clean building with adequate lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation, you don’t need to worry about square footage and building costs.

“BASIS proves a school can achieve extremely high standards of student performance with a building that has less than half of the construction costs and 65 percent less space than a typical new high school here. North Carolina could follow the example by freeing up teachers and parents to create similar schools here.”

Dr. Michael Sanera’s Spotlight report, “Buildings Don’t Teach Students: North Carolina should concentrate on what goes on inside the buildings,” is available here..