Originally Published: August 5, 2018 6:11 p.m.
PHOENIX — Arizona schools are near the bottom of the barrel nationally when academics, class size and even student bullying are considered, at least according to a financial advice website.
The new study from WalletHub comes as education takes center stage in this year’s political races.
Incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey has come under fire for his slow response to providing adequate funding for education and bringing per-student funding back to pre-recession levels. And there are two measures on the November ballot dealing with whether the state has adequate funds to provide a quality public education for all.
There were some areas where Arizona schools look better than much of the rest of the nation.
For example, just 6.2 percent of students participated in violence in 2017. Only eight states had lower rates.
Similarly, just 3.5 percent of students were armed and there were only two school shootings from 1990 through May 2018.
But along the lines of student safety, nearly 8 percent of high schoolers reported they had been threatened. That’s a higher figure than more than half the other states. And almost a third of high schools reported that illegal drugs were made available to them on school property.
Where Arizona really fell short, though, is on the academic side of the ledger.
WalletHub found the dropout rate between 2015 and 2016 was more than 20 percent, making Arizona No. 43 in that category.
Math and reading test scores in 2017 also were below the national average, as was the share of 2017 high schoolers scoring a 3 or higher on advanced placement scores.
And Arizona came in close to dead last in the number of students per teacher through all grade levels, at more than 23. Only California did worse.
The report is significant because it avoids the issue that has become a flash point: education funding.
Several studies have shown Arizona to be at or near the bottom of per-pupil funding among all the states. Others have put salaries for Arizona teachers also close to the bottom.
Various groups have said those numbers are irrelevant, arguing they do not consider other issues like the cost of living in Arizona versus other states. Instead, they said, the focus should be on results.
This report does have some of those results.
It does find the median score on the SAT test for Arizona students in 2016 was 516.7. That was good enough to rank No. 24 nationally.
But ACT tests results were less impressive, with the median score of 19 being just good enough to put Arizona at No. 39.
In the lower grades, Arizona places No. 37 in the average score on math tests for fourth- and eighth-graders in 2017, and No. 38 in reading.
In a prepared response, Ducey press aide Daniel Ruiz dismissed the study as “a very segmented look at the Arizona education landscape.’’
“We think there is a really positive story to tell as it relates to where our education system is today, and where it’s headed,’’ he said.
“We continue to make progress and improvements in reading and math scores.’’
Ruiz also said the state has put $1.7 billion in new dollars into K-12 education in the past three years, though some of that is what is required by law to keep pace with inflation and the number of new students.
That question of education funding also will be on the November ballot.
One measure seeks to increase the state taxes owed on earnings of individuals making at least $250,000 a year.
Proponents say that would raise about $690 million to guarantee that there will be funding for things like promised future pay raises for teachers.
The other seeks to overturn a 2017 measure that expands who can get state tax dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools.
Those seeking to overturn the expansion say this diverts dollars needed in traditional K-12 classrooms.