Education
Arizona Republic
Jan. 16, 2005

Public opinion polls in Arizona and across the nation repeatedly cite education as one of residents' leading concerns. Academic studies identify educational achievement as indispensable to a state's economic and social well-being. Political and business leaders regularly name it as their top priority. In fact, no issue is more in the limelight than K-12 and postsecondary education, or has as great an impact on the state's treasury. Together, K-12 and higher education account for nearly 60 percent of state General Fund spending.

In the past decade or so, Arizona has launched many policy initiatives in response to continuing calls for greater achievement at all levels. The initiatives include:

K-12 Academic Content Standards.

A high-stakes test for high school graduation.

Strong support for charter schools.

Pay increases for teachers.

Yet many measures show how far the state still has to go. For example, its elementary class sizes remain among the nation's highest; its fourth-grade students are ranked 40th among the states on the national NAEP reading test; its high school students are almost last among the states for going on to college; and, regardless of how one calculates it, an alarming number of students drop out of school each year.

To further complicate matters, a recent report by the Arizona Education Policy Initiative, a collaborative effort among Arizona's three public universities, found that the state has inadequate data and tracking systems to judge whether reform policies are working.

Tough assignments

The tasks facing Arizona's public schools are substantial.

Arizona's superintendent of public instruction reported that, in 2003, 51 percent of the state's K-12 public school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a standard indicator of disadvantage.

Approximately half of the state's K-12 students (49 percent) come from minority groups, which suffer disproportionately from low incomes and poor preparation. Sixteen percent of elementary and secondary students were "English language learners" in 2003.

Spanish is the most prevalent native language other than English, but as many as 43 languages are spoken by Arizona students. According to a 2002 U.S. Department of Education survey, Arizona ranks second only to California in the percentage of teachers who reported working with students who had little or no proficiency in English.

Arizona is ranked eighth in the nation for the number of elementary schools providing before- and after-school programs, according to National Center for Education Statistics.

Taste for innovation

Arizona has made charter schools a centerpiece of its efforts to improve education and provide parents with school options. The state's nearly 500 charter schools put Arizona first in the nation. In the nation's first major effort to examine the entities that authorize charter schools, Arizona also fares well.

Dropouts

The high number of Arizona students who quit school has made the dropout problem one of the state's most visible and critical education issues.

However, there is no nationally uniform way of counting dropouts. Some states, including Arizona, consider children dropouts even if they earn a GED; other states do not. States also differ in how they count departing students whose whereabouts are unknown and those who drop out in the summer. Three calculation methods are used most often: the annual method, the pool or status method, and the cohort method.

The annual dropout method counts enrolled students who fail to complete the school year (and students enrolled last year who failed to enroll this year) but did not transfer, graduate or die. This figure, prepared by the U.S. Department of Education, assigns Arizona the nation's highest dropout rate.

The pool or status method counts the proportion of teenagers in a state's population who are neither enrolled in school nor high school graduates. The 2000 census ranked Arizona as second-highest in the nation using this method.

The cohort method, used in No Child Left Behind, measures the proportion of a class of students who enrolled in ninth grade in a given year but who were not enrolled and had not graduated four years later. The Arizona Department of Education reports that Arizona's four-year graduation rate has hovered around 71 percent in recent years and reported it at 72.7 percent for the Class of 2002, although this number did not include 10.9 percent of students classified as "status unknown."


Policy choices


With so much riding on education, Arizonans are taking note of a wide range of policy options. Here and now the policy talk is about:


Expanding state-funded, voluntary, all-day kindergarten to all schools throughout the state.


Ensuring that community- and school-based programs and services support the rapid acquisition of English skills.


Providing appropriate resources to all schools to apply "best practices" at such milestones as third grade, eighth grade and the first year of college to increase achievement and completion rates.


Matching skills needed in the workforce with academic learning for young people and adults.


Developing more options for financial aid for higher education among low- and middle-income students of any age.


Creating data systems that document the performance of Arizona's education system from preschool through postsecondary education (known as P-20 performance).