'WE'RE NO. 49!'
Arizona Republic
January 14, 2007

Author: Jon Talton, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

If the media made as much hoopla of the crisis in Arizona education as they do of football bowl games, maybe more people would finally pay attention. Or maybe not.

Brief notice went to Education Week's annual ranking of state educational attainment. Arizona came in 49th. Local officials rushed to explain it all away and denounce yet another study that was apparently done only to make Arizona feel bad.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the study tracked many things outside Arizona's control. OK -- but why did nearly every other state, also caught in destiny's slipstream, do better? Why does Arizona always come in around 49? What about aiming for 45?

I continue to be baffled why Horne, an intelligent and well-meaning man, plays defense with these rankings rather than using them as a cudgel to make the Legislature get serious about school funding.

Every serious Arizonan should read the Education Week Quality Counts report.
It's at www.edweek.org. Supported by the Pew Center for the States, which is now led by former Arizonan Mary Jo Waits, Quality Counts is one of the gold standards of education measurement.

While Arizona officials want to wish it away, and the local crackpot "think tank" may claim its numbers don't matter, many do pay attention. Among them are talented people who won't move to a state with Arizona's consistently poor performance, and companies that are looking to locate high-quality operations.

This year's report tries to look deeper into the connection between stages of education and what this says about a student's chances of succeeding in the global economy.

It says, "Smart states, like smart companies, try to make the most of their investments by ensuring that young people's education is connected from one stage to the next -- reducing the chances that students will be lost along the way ..."

The conclusions are sobering. In nearly all developed countries, younger generations are attaining higher education levels. In the United States, the younger generations have failed to surpass the previous generation. In addition, an ominous gap of educational attainment (like income) is opening in American society.

One value of the report is that it looks beyond such factors as funding and class size (where Arizona always comes out badly). Research suggests a child's success is also related to family income, education level of parents and linguistic integration, as well as strictly school-related measures.

Arizona is below the national average, sometimes drastically so, in most of the socioeconomic and education measures tracked. The state was average in employment, kindergarten participation and high school graduation. Like most states, Arizona did better in high test scores per 100 students in the 11th and 12th grade. By contrast, students in Virginia, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Maryland are best prepared for success. Many other states are doing well.

The divide is stark. A map of likely success shows a lazy "U" running from Nevada through Arizona and New Mexico, then into the South. Will these lowest achievers become, to use a Waits' phrase, "the Appalachia of the 21st century" or something even worse?

Yes, illegal immigration is part of Arizona's problem. But so are decades of "on the cheap" policies and inadequate funding. So is pushing for charter schools -- undeniably a good business deal for some -- without a sustained drive to pay for excellence in all Arizona public schools. So, too, is a failure to seriously implement strategies to create a high-wage economy.

Yet, where's the outrage?

People are coming. The weather is warm (getting warmer). Sure, there's increasing congestion, crime, smog, environmental damage, dehumanizing sprawl and that latest report on poor education. But, as I am constantly told, "at least we don't have to shovel it here."

Those with concerns are told to shut up and be happy. We're told not to be "so negative."

We're living in different realities. To me, the optimists are the ones who accept Arizona's challenges honestly, then work for real reform. They know that none of the excuses give Arizona a pass. I would put the governor and a few other leaders in this category. But they face such a headwind of opposition, progress may come too slowly.

The real pessimists are the ones who live in denial or cynicism about a grim future speeding our way -- one we could avoid -- while only wanting to make the next real estate deal. And yes, a low-wage economy can be profitable for some, in the short term, at least.

We hear a lot about property here. But too few people really want to own Arizona. It's not really "home." It's a resort, where people merely check in and check out. It's a spectacular theme park -- and how many visitors worry about a theme park? It's a consumer product, disposable.

Where's the outrage?

Reach Talton at jon.talton@arizonarepublic.com.

CAPTION: Tom Horne
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Opinions
Page: V5