Despite recent funding increases, Arizona still has one of the weakest school systems in the country, according to ratings by WalletHub, a financial website.

Arizona ranks 49th nationally when it comes to a broad range of educational measurements, including test scores, funding, school safety, class size, teacher salaries and qualifications and other measurements.

The ratings feed into the political debate, with incumbents like state Sen. Sylvia Allen insisting Arizona schools have plenty of money and touting the state’s many options — with state support for public charter schools, private schools, home schooling and school vouchers.

On the other hand, her would-be Democratic opponent — retired Army Col. Felicia French — has called for increased public school funding, more regulation of public charter schools and decreased taxpayer support for vouchers, private schools.

Allen heads the senate education committee and voted for the nation’s deepest cuts in school spending right through the recession.

Incumbent District 6 Representative Walt Blackman has been in office for less than two years and has voted for the recent increases, including a 15 percent teacher pay raise. The other incumbent lawmaker — Rep. Bob Thorpe — also supported the deep cuts in education. However, he’s term-limited now and is running for the senate, which means he has to unseat Allen in the Republican primary.

The WalletHub numbers would seem to undercut the defense of the deep spending cuts during the recession, with only a modest down payment on restoring the cuts in the past three years.

The national study compared 50 states and the District of Columbia on 29 different measurements of school quality and performance. Only Louisiana (50th) and New Mexico (51st) scored lower than Arizona.

Among the grim indicators for Arizona:

• 37th for math test scores

• 38th for reading test scores

• 51st for the student-teacher ratio

• 18 on Median SAT score, which is a college entrance test

• 44th on Median ACT scores, another college entrance test

• 40th in the percentage of teachers who have certification or credentials

• 48th for the dropout rate

• 17th in the incidence of school bullying

• 35th in the number of threatened or injured high school students

Overall, Arizona ranked 50th on the “quality” measurements and 34th on the school safety measurements.

Colorado ranked 17th overall, 17th on quality and 10th on school safety.

Utah ranked 23rd overall, 24th for quality and 13th for school safety.

Arizona ranked poorly on some indicators researchers link to school performance — and funding. Perhaps the two starkest measures were the state’s high dropout rate and Arizona’s much larger than average class sizes. Large class sizes — especially in the elementary school years — are strongly linked to poor performance on math and reading tests, where Arizona also suffers. Studies suggest that a high school dropout will make $200,000 less over their careers than a high school graduate and $1 million less than a college graduate. One study concluded that boosting the high school graduation rate from 83 percent to 90 percent nationally would generate an extra $5.7 billion in economic growth and 14,000 jobs nationally.

Arizona’s dropout rate is more than three times as high as Iowa’s, the state with the lowest rate.

Advocates for charter schools and private school vouchers have long argued that offering more parent choices will not only empower parents to meet the needs of their children — but will also improve schools overall by making public schools compete for students.

The national numbers show no sign of that happening, although Arizona not only has perhaps the most extensive charter school network in the country, but among the most generous taxpayer subsidies for private school tuition through its expanding school voucher system.

The study attempted to figure out whether the states that spent the most money got the best results.

Generally, spending did correlate with outcomes — but not always.

States that spent more than average but had worse than average academic results included Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.

On the other hand, some low-spending states got relatively good academic results, including Wisconsin, Kentucky, Kansas. Colorado, South Dakota and Utah.

Arizona fell right in the middle.

The study included comments from experts.

University of Connecticut professor Joseph Renzulli said schools are lagging when it comes to preparing students for the modern, high-tech economy, which demands critical thinking skills. “Because of the rigid standards and test-prep driven instruction most of our schools are designed to prepare students for the industrial revolution. Education needs to prepare students to develop learning-how-to-learn skills for jobs that don’t exist and the ability to use creativity, thinking skills, executive function skills and the application of these skills to meaningful projects.”

Howard University professor Leslie Fenwick said the study documented the lack of results from a dramatic increase in charter schools nationally, which have mostly tended to increase school segregation by race. “This amounts to a voucher scheme designed to use public tax dollars for private, for-profit charter and online K-12 schools. The focus on charter schools and vouchers siphons money from public schools and offers no abiding solution to what ails public schools serving students of color and students experiencing poverty. The districts and schools serving these students need more — not fewer — fiscal and human resources.”

Eastern Connecticut State University Professor Mark Fabrizi said the stress on charter schools and vouchers won’t improve public education, but added that “given that per-pupil expenditure has comparatively less impact on student learning than, say, parental involvement or teacher expertise, this policy is not likely to have a great impact on education across the U.S. Research has demonstrated that one of the most significant factors in predicting student learning is the socioeconomic status of the student and their family.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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