Editor's note: This is the first in a series of bi-monthly articles on Gila County education that will be authored by Gila County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Linda O'Dell and Northern Gila County's two representatives on the Gila Community College governing board, Dr. Larry Stephenson and Don Crowley.
According to a recent nationwide study, Arizona's education system is tied for 49th place among the 50 states, and nowhere is that more evident than in the disjointed system of community colleges, where we again rank 49th in terms of students who enter the system, but never graduate.
Adding insult to injury, Gila County's "provisional" community college status leaves it near the bottom of the state's higher education food chain.
With regard to the struggle for educational resources between the northern and southern portions of the county, I liken it to locking two starving people in a room with only half the food necessary to sustain one of them -- a sure recipe for dissension and conflict. That is a reasonably accurate description of the financial resources currently available to Gila Community College.
Diagnosing what has gone wrong within Arizona's community college system and what needs to be fixed requires far more space than this article permits. However, the place to start is the dysfunctional way in which the community college system was structured at the outset, and the problems that structure has created.
To have and have not
It appears that in virtually every other state but Arizona, community or junior college districts are designed to encompass all areas of the states. Some districts might be far-reaching and others condensed, but everyone ends up being in one college district or another.
That is not the case in Arizona.
Gila County is one of four counties that were "orphaned" when Arizona's political powers-that-be authorized county-based community college districts some years ago.
First, the Legislature decreed that only counties that met certain minimums for population and assessed valuation would be eligible, and those minimums would ratchet up in proportion to the growth of Maricopa County.
Because of this rising benchmark and Maricopa's rapid growth, it is unlikely that counties that didn't measure up at the beginning will ever qualify.
Second, realizing that these measures effectively excluded eight of the state's 15 counties, the Legislature "grandfathered" in four of the eight -- permitting them to have their own community college districts despite their deficiencies.
Those left out -- the "have-not" counties -- were Gila and three others: Apache, Greenlee and Santa Cruz. They were expected to affiliate with other contiguous counties that had districts and become their vassals, and that's what has happened -- for better or worse.
The effect of that decision on the educational and economic positions of the "have-not" counties is rather clearly evidenced in U.S. census data gathered in the year 2000.
Average per capita income in the four "have-not" counties was a paltry $12,560, almost 40 percent below the $20,536 level of Arizona excluding the four counties. Gila County came in at $16,315 -- 20 percent below the state average.
In the four orphaned counties, 26.7 percent of the people had incomes below the poverty level. The comparable number for Arizona, excluding those counties, was 13.2 percent -- roughly one-half of the four excluded counties. Gila County's comparable percent was 17.4 percent -- almost one-third worse than the Arizona statistics.
Going to college
Only 12.5 percent of eligible students in the four counties were enrolled in colleges or universities. Statewide (except the four counties), 24 percent were in college -- essentially twice the level of the excluded counties. In Gila County, the percentage was 14.8 percent, barely above the four-county average despite its proximity to Phoenix.
Statewide, excluding the four counties, 23.8 percent of the adult population had attained bachelor's degrees or better. That compared to only 13.1 percent in the four counties and only 13.9 percent in Gila County.
So, there you have it -- a pervasive pattern of lower incomes, higher poverty, lower college enrollment and less educational attainment in the disadvantaged counties.
Clearly, the young people growing up in these "orphaned" counties, as well as the adult populations, are at a distinct educational disadvantage to their peers in Maricopa, Pima and other counties that have been blessed with better-financed and locally-controlled districts of their own.
To many of us, this system appears to be quite discriminatory and to run counter to laws that require government to provide equal educational opportunities to all. But who is able to expend the time, effort and resources to challenge the constitutionality of this system?
That said, the time may be ripe for Arizona to implement some constructive changes.
Governor Janet Napolitano made education her top priority both within Arizona and in her role as chairman of the National Governors Association. In addition, Arizona legislators statewide have increased their focus on improving education and particularly on the state's relatively unsupervised community colleges.
Finally, legislators are starting to grapple with Gila County's unique position as the only "provisional" community college in the state -- a position it assumed in 2002 following voter approval of funding for such a district.
Unfortunately, the "provisional" structure has done little to improve the quality, availability and cost of higher education in the county, and the empowering legislation is scheduled to "sunset" in 2009.
So, it may be timely for Arizona to implement constructive changes to a community college system that is currently disenfranchising so many of our citizens.
If you share my concerns and hopes, I hope you will make your views and recommendations known to our three state legislators and the governor.