Myth of Arizona's miserable schools

The Arizona Republic
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Robert Robb

One of the more persistent public-policy myths in Arizona is that the state has been shortchanging primary and secondary education. Not infrequently, the claim is made that per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has actually been decreasing.

This is manifestly false.

In 1980, voters approved an expenditure limit on aggregate spending by Arizona school districts. Increases in real per-pupil spending in excess of 10 percent had to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. In the last few years, the Legislature has had to vote to bust the expenditure limit, so real per-pupil spending has gone up by at least that amount.

A recent study by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators, provides the fullest picture I've seen about education spending in Arizona compared to other states.

According to the study (Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis), real per-pupil operational spending in Arizona has increased 24 percent since 1986.

Another myth that dies in the data is that Arizona teachers are poorly paid compared to other states. According to this study, Arizona ranks 26th in average teacher salary, and above the national average in terms of teacher pay compared to the average salary of other college-educated workers in the state.

You often heard that Arizona has the worst public schools in the country. The report compares academic achievement among the states according to federal assessment tests and college entrance exams (SAT and ACT). Arizona ranks 31st among the states in academic achievement.

A closer look exposes Arizona's academic challenge. Arizona ranks pretty much in the middle of the states with college-bound students, ranking 21st on the ACTs and 27th on the SATs. However, we rank in the bottom third of the states on the performance of all students as measured by the federal tests.

Arizona is on the point of the achievement gap in this country between Whites and Asians on one end and Latinos, Blacks and American Indians on the other.

Nearly 40 percent of Arizona students are Latino. A majority are Latino, Black or American Indian.

The only states with a higher percentage of students in educationally lagging demographic groups are California, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. Only Texas ranks higher than Arizona in overall academic achievement.

The 10 states ranked highest in academic achievement have an average of 81 percent of their students being White. Only one, New Jersey, has more than a third of its student population in educationally lagging demographic groups.

Achievement is more important than spending. Nevertheless, there is a fixation on spending and the fact that Arizona ranks near the bottom on it.

If Arizona has been increasing real per-pupil spending, how did we end up being a bottom-dweller?

That's a very interesting and revealing story. In 1986, Arizona ranked 34th among the states in per-pupil operating expenditures. Despite increasing real expenditures 24 percent, Arizona ranked 49th in 2006, according to the study.

Obviously, other states increased real per-pupil spending even more, by an average of 54 percent.

So, what did other states get for their greater increase in spending? According to the report, not much. There was very little correlation found in the report between academic achievement and higher spending, higher teacher salaries and lower student-teacher ratios.

The main trend that Arizona missed out on was a lower student-teacher ratio. In Arizona, it increased slightly while it dropped 15 percent in the rest of the country.

The Arizona Tax Research Association did a calculation based upon the ALEC data. It found that Arizona actually spends right at the national median in classroom expenditures. We just have more students in the classrooms.

The question is whether that is academically significant. According to this report, it hasn't been.

This is not to say that Arizona doesn't have significant educational challenges. Overcoming the achievement gap is more important in Arizona than elsewhere.

It will be easier to concentrate on the true educational challenges, however, if we lay to rest the myth of the penny-pinching state Legislature as a scapegoat.