Arizona Education, Is It All Just About the Money?

Arizona is part of a group of about eight states that are 49th out of 50 in education spending. Others include Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Louisiana, Utah, and Pennsylvania. How can that happen? It’s all in how you combine the data sets. Anyway, the point is that states are competing to be at the bottom. Why is being at the bottom better than being at the top? There are few better arguments for increasing spending than being at the bottom. It’s all about the money. The stated goal of increased spending is to improve the quality of education, but does quality vary concomitantly with spending?

Here is what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) says in its Nation’s Report Card about 4th grade reading achievement, “In 2009, the average score of fourth-grade students in Arizona was 210. This was lower than the average score of 220 for public school students in the nation. The average score for students in Arizona in 2009 (210) was not significantly different from their average score in 2007 (210) and was not significantly different from their average score in 1992 (209).” 4th grade reading is critical because when the skill is substandard, students tend not to catch up, they can’t read their textbooks in middle and high school, they become frustrated, act out, and drop out.

Now let’s compare Arizona’s spending to our rather flat level of achievement. According to Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee, public school per student spending went from $6,497 in 2000 to $9,698 in 2009. After adjusting for inflation, the net increase is slightly over 20 per cent. Again, the increase is the per student rate – the total increase is much more. There is a bright side to this situation. Achievement levels are, after all, not going down; and we are not alone, California has also increased per student expenditures with virtually no change in outcomes. So, what is the money doing? Who knows. The important lesson is that something is stuck, and money is not shaking it loose.

If money does not have the desired affect, what will? Florida, which has many of the same demographic challenges as Arizona and California, has made some dramatic strides in education. NAEP scoring placed Florida comparable to Arizona in that critical area of 4th grade reading during most of the 1990’s. In 1998, Florida took off and is now scoring well above Arizona. The success has been disproportionally enjoyed by Hispanic and Afro-American students. Hispanic students went from a score of 192 in 1994 to 218 in 1996 while Arizona’s total students hovered around 205-210 during the same period. Florida’s Afro-American students went from 181 in 1994 to 208 in 2007, matching Arizona’s total students.

Yikes! What did Florida do? Florida took a two pronged approach. It instituted programs that allowed parental choice, and rated individual schools based on performance through a program of high-stakes testing. A synergy developed between the principles of choice and accountability. The performance data available to the parents helped them to make good choices which led to the better schools expanding, and the failing schools contracting. This improved the quality of education across the state, which is reflected in student performance.

Meanwhile, Arizona has made some modest gains in the area of choice. It has one of the best charter school laws in the country. Charter schools, along with magnet schools, fill the choice bill. They tend to be diverse, are over-represented in schools that excel, and are under-represented in schools that are failing. Parents tend to be much happier with charter schools since they can choose the one that matches their educational vision.

Alas, accountability is another story. Arizona developed the AIMS test to ensure that graduating students were educated to a high school level, and to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind program. The test was “dumbed-down” over time, primarily by continuously lowering the cut-score. The “cut-score” is the minimum score required to pass. In 2003, the cut-score for 8th grade reading was 73% for “proficient”, in 2004 it was lowered to 59%. In this way, the state was able to show improvement without actually having to achieve it.

Speaking of choices, Arizonans have a big one to make: do we want to continue spending more and more money for the same level of mediocrity, or do we want to fight the status quo, and those who appear willing to do anything to maintain it?