PHOENIX – The way WalletHub sees things, Arizona has the fourth worst school system in the entire country.
An analysis of various factors by the financial advice web site puts only Louisiana, New Mexico and Alaska further down on the list. And only Utah and California had a higher ratio of pupils to teachers.
A spokesman for state schools chief Diane Douglas said the rankings, released Monday, “remind us of the needs facing our school system.”
Douglas’ spokesman, Charles Tack, said there is even more recent data than WalletHub used for reading and math scores. And he said both have gone up, calling that “a step in the right direction.”
But Daniel Scarpinato, press aide to Gov. Doug Ducey, was dismissive of the rankings.
“The study is baloney,” he told Capitol Media Services.
Scarpinato did not dispute the numbers WalletHub found for the various factors it studied.
Aside from being 49th in pupil-teacher ratio, Arizona was near the bottom in the average ACT score by its students. It also was below average for the high school graduation rate for low-income students and far below average for the dropout rate.
But Scarpinato said none of that really matters. His reason: school choice.
“Many of these states (that are ranked higher) you need to be able to afford a very expensive home in an expensive neighborhood in order for your child to get access to a good school,” he said.
“In Arizona we have open enrollment,” Scarpinato said, which means a student can attend any public school in the state. There also are various school choice options, including charter schools that are part of the public school system.
What that means, he said, is any Arizona child can access whatever school his or her parents believe is best. There are caveats though: A school not in the student’s district must have space available. And the parent needs to get the child to that school every day.
But school choice also involves the state providing dollar-for-dollar income tax credits to help students attend private and parochial schools. And these are students who are no longer part of the public school system that WalletHub finds wanting.
The new study follows repeated reports that Arizona is close to the bottom in per-student funding. Even with the additional dollars that will flow to schools with passage of Proposition 123 – about $300 per student – the state will still rank in the bottom 20 percent.
WalletHub says it found there was not always a correlation between public funding and quality schools. “That isn’t to say that money doesn’t help,” the report says.
It cites a study by the Economic Policy Institute that says income is higher in states where the workforce is well educated and thus more productive. In turn, workers with better earnings contribute greater taxes to boost state budgets over the long run.
While Scarpinato cites the success stories of some schools and open enrollment, the fact remains that Arizona has 22.8 students for every teacher. And that’s a statewide average, including good and bad schools.
“We have some challenges that some other states don’t,” he said.
For example, Scarpinato said, Arizona is growing more rapidly than other states. And some states back East are actually losing population.
“If you have a decreasing population, guess what?” he said. “You’re going to see an increase in per pupil amounts.”
But Scarpinato brushed aside a question of whether Arizona, facing that rapid growth of students, should be increasing funding to keep up with that growth. And he dismissed the idea that Arizona, which already has made sharp cuts in corporate income taxes, should put a halt to future tax cuts.
“If every other state in the country agreed to the same thing, then that might be one thing,” he said.
“But you have Democratic states that are lowering the corporate income tax,” Scarpinato continued. “We’re competing with these other states that are lowering taxes and instituting tax reform.”
Ducey has repeatedly pointed to the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, which find three Arizona schools in the Top 10 public schools in the nation.
He has said that shows Arizona schools can perform and these need to be the models for everywhere else in the state.
But all three of those schools are part of the Basis charter school system.
More to the point, on a broader basis, that same U.S. News study finds Arizona below the national average in the percent of its schools rated among the Top 700 in the country.
The WalletHub rankings came as no surprise to Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association.
“Being ranked 48th is another prime example of why Arizona leaders must come together and prioritize public K-12 education as a state initiative,” she said.
“Schools continue to exist in a cloud of uncertainty when it comes to funding,” Vega said.
Even with approval of Proposition 123, she noted there are other issues that remain, including changes to how students are counted and the loss of dollars that some school have to spend to meet desegregation orders. And Vega pointed out that a 0.6-cent sales tax approved by voters for education in 2000 will self-destruct in 2021, eliminating twice as much money as Proposition 123 added.