Guest Opinion

Why hasn't an increase in achievement followed the increase in educational spending?

In 2005, Arizona was part of a group of about eight states that ranked 49th out of 50 in education spending.

How can that happen? It's all in how you combine the data sets. Anyway, the point is that states are competing to be at the bottom. Why is being at the bottom better than being at the top? There are few better arguments for increasing spending than being at the bottom: It's all about the money. The stated goal of increased spending is to improve the quality of education, but does quality vary concomitantly with spending?

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Arizona's score for fourth-grade reading achievement was significantly below the national average of public-school students nationwide. In fact, Arizona's achievement level has been hovering around that same score since 1992. Fourth-grade reading is critical, because when reading skills at that grade level are substandard, students tend not to catch up; they become frustrated, act out and drop out.

Now let's compare Arizona's spending to our rather flat level of substandard achievement. According to Arizona's Joint Legislative Budget Committee, public-school per-student spending saw an inflation-adjusted net increase of slightly more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2009. (This is the per-student rate; the total percentage increase is much more.)

Spending is up 20 percent while achievement is flat. What is the money doing? Who knows. The point is that something is stuck, and money is not shaking it loose.

If money does not have the desired affect, what will?

Florida, which has many of the same demographic challenges as Arizona, has made some dramatic strides in education. NAEP scoring placed Florida comparable to Arizona in that critical area of fourth-grade reading during most of the 1990s. In 1998, Florida took off and is now scoring well above Arizona. The success has been disproportionately enjoyed by Hispanic and African-American students. Hispanic students went from an abysmal score in 1994—well below Arizona's students as a whole—to a level significantly higher than the average Arizona student over the same period. Florida's African-American students went from scores similar to those of the Florida Hispanic students in 1994, to matching Arizona's students as a whole in 2007. That's right: Florida progressed from below Arizona's score to above Arizona's score in total student population, with the greatest gains seen in minority demographic groups.

So, what did Florida do? Florida took a two-pronged approach: It instituted programs that allowed parental choice, and rated individual schools based on performance through a program of high-stakes testing—a synergy developed between the principles of choice and accountability. The performance data available to parents helped them make good choices, which led to the better schools expanding, and the failing schools contracting. This improved the quality of education across the state, which is reflected in student performance.

Meanwhile, Arizona has made some modest gains in the area of choice. It has one of the best charter-school laws in the country. Charter schools, along with magnet schools, fill the choice bill. They tend to be diverse, are overrepresented in schools that excel, and are under-represented in schools that are failing. Parents tend to be much happier with charter, magnet or other choice-based schools since they can choose the one that matches their educational vision.

Alas, accountability is another story. Arizona developed the AIMS test to ensure that graduating students were properly educated, and to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind program. The test was dumbed down over time, primarily by continuously lowering the cut score, or the minimum score required to pass. In 2003, the cut score for eighth-grade reading was 73 percent for "proficient," but in 2004, it was lowered to 59 percent. In this way, the state was able to show improvement without actually having to achieve it.

Speaking of choices, Arizonans have a big one to make: Do we want to continue spending more and more money for the same level of mediocrity—or do we want to fight the status quo, and those who appear willing to do anything to maintain it?

About The Author

Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman moved to Tucson from Connecticut in 1977 and never looked back. He attended the UA, ran for City Council Ward III in 2001, and made regular contributions to the Guest Commentary section of the Tucson Weekly for over five years. He helped launch the Southern Arizona News Examiner. He is a former...
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