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Arizona youth 'dropped' and disconnected?

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Many Arizonans have expressed alarm at the seemingly unceasing stream of critical reports about our state's public education system. Funding levels, class size, test performance — no matter what is measured, it seems, Arizona ranks poorly if not near the bottom.

Well, it's happened again. And the subject this time is a key measure of social well-being that most of us have probably never even heard of.

A national report released last fall concludes that Phoenix recorded the worst "youth disconnection rate" among the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas. That means that Phoenix-area youth aged 16 to 24 were the least likely to be employed and/or attending school — even compared to such historically troubled metros as New York, Washington and Detroit.

Further, this disconnection is the highest in the nation among African Americans (28 percent compared with a 22.5 percent national average) and Latinos (24 percent compared with an 18.5 percent national average). On the other hand, while Arizona's white youth have a disconnection rate slightly higher (13.3 percent) than the national average (11.7 percent), it is still lower than for most other metropolitan cities. That only underscores the disparity in achievement  among racial and ethnic groups in the Phoenix area.

The One in Seven report further asserts that, perhaps surprisingly, unemployment rates are not the root of this problem; Phoenix's unemployment rate is comparable to that of other metropolitan areas. However, what is cause for concern is our school-enrollment rate. The report states that Phoenix has the worst enrollment rate in the country. Only 55 percent of our youth are enrolled in school, while our teen pregnancy rate is twice that of the best performing metropolitan area, Boston.

This report reaffirms the dismal findings in the Morrison Institute report, Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona's Economic Future,released last year, and its Five Shoes report released 11 years prior. Both of these studies warn of a potentially lost generation of poorly educated, untrained young Latinos in Arizona.

The Dropped report found that, since 2001, Latino youth lag well behind the state's white students in educational performance, despite some improvement in dropout rates. Additionally, in 2009, among those who began college, Latinos (50 percent) and blacks (41 percent) had lower college graduation rates than whites (58 percent), a disparity that is not projected to improve over the next 20 years.

In fact, if left unchecked, the number of Arizona adults with less than a high school education could rise through 2030, with the vast majority of them being Latino. This predicts a low-achieving workforce that will impede Arizona's efforts to attract the type of high-skill, high-paying industries that our state wants and needs.

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The causes of such discouraging outcomes have been cited in numerous reports; they include poverty, adult unemployment, low parent educational attainment, inadequate school funding and a lack of social capital (access to resources and people who have connections to increase upward mobility).

The One in Seven report goes a step further, noting that living in a segregated neighborhood with poor-quality schools, limited transportation, high crime, and few amenities can be harmful to education attainment and that "because many African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor and have lower rates of employment and educational attainment, this segregation by income looks a lot like the effect of residential segregation by race." (p. 25).

Income inequality itself is a major problem for Arizona. Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported Arizona was the second-worst rated of all states in income inequality from 2008 to 2010 — a trend of deterioration that began 10 years ago – with the highest 20 percent of Arizona's household wage earners making almost 10 times as much as the lowest 20 percent.

The report states that "children from poor families don't perform as well in school and are likely to be less-prepared for the jobs of the future. Moreover, as income gaps widen, wealthy households become increasingly isolated from poor and middle-income communities. This hurts our nation's sense of community and shared interests, for example, undermining support for public schools and other building blocks of economic growth."

How to reduce this disparity? Virtually all reports advance similar recommendations:

  • Increase education funding;
  • Ensure equal access to high quality pre-schools;
  • Connect at-risk children in need of support with wrap-around services, such as mental health care, family counseling, job training, and after-school programs that will help them to succeed; and
  • Develop meaningful, individualized school-to-work options that include college or post-secondary vocational education/training in the child's area of interest.

Yet despite these repeated recommendations, Arizona has enacted few significant, systematic reforms. For example, last fall's ballot proposition that would have temporarily extended a 1-cent sales tax to raise nearly $80 million annually for both K-12 and higher education failed at the ballot box. And the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that from 2008 to 2013 Arizona has endured the largest percentage decrease in per-student educational expenditures of all 50 states, a 21.8 percent reduction in state funding.

These cuts severely impact schools that have higher concentrations of students in poverty, thus denying support from those who need it the most. In sum, Arizona continues to grapple with poor educational outcomes, low funding, and a lack of state commitment to education — and the negative national headlines that result. Do we simply not understand the negative economic impact on all Arizonans of lacking an educated population across all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic lines? Are we going to remain disconnected as citizens and "kick the can down the road" — releasing another grim report in 10 years identifying the same problems?  

Or do we, as a state, finally stand up and take action to assure a strong economic future for an Arizona future that, for richer or poorer, includes everyone?

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

McFadden is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute.

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