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Schooled: Money does help student achievement, after all

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What the Devil won't tell you

Schooled: Money does help student achievement, after all

Test scores, economics show Az's school funding won't make us most likely to succeed

  • alamosbasement/Flickr

Let's talk student achievement, because God knows no one else does. It's a hard measure to come by, but what is out there paints a picture that is a good news-bad news sort of thing.

Arizona has some of the highest test scores and living standards in the country. Or did the Confederacy lose the Civil War? If so, and by "country" we don't mean Confederate States of America, we've got problems.

The South seems to be Arizona's model for a low-service, concrete-safety-net and low-tax design that uses low wages to attract industry. In the 1990s, the state broke out of the powder-dry, business-savvy conservative sensibilities to hum "Dixie" and hope to replicate the South's success from the 1970s. And now that it's the home of "true conservatism," the region remains an even brighter guide star for Arizona's fortunes. The state just missed the part where the South started investing heavily in K-12 during the late 1990s and early 2000s but Arizona failed to keep up with its enrollment growth.

That's fine, Arizona Republican politicians argue, because money has nothing to do with academic success. True enough, there are no magic bullets, but no one denies that best practices are relevant to a successful business or academic achievement. 

Student achievement can be hard to judge because there is resistance from social conservatives on the Right and teachers on the Left to measuring themselves against the rest of the country. It's how "Common Core" and "No Child Left Behind" get all but burned in effigy. 

Folks with an ax to grind want only to see results that prove their ax needs to be ground, so actual results that threaten to dull those axes get harder and harder to come by — because people will dispute what needs to be chopped with the ax. So America does not have a standardized achievement test to judge results and measure against one another. That's too risky. 

Also, some performing the rankings may be trying to prove an editorial philosophy. I'm going to use the most straightforward numbers that are out there. I'm not going to use the Kansas-based research/ranking firm Morgan-Quinto which called Arizona grads the least educated in the countryby a lot. I'm not going to rely on the American Legislative Exchange Council to tell us we rank at No.47.

It's not all relative

The question of achievement versus spending is also really relative. Conservative governors like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Paul LePaige and Rick Snyder can cut school budgets in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Maine and Michigan by 10 percent and still rank among states that spend enough to leverage results. They can say "it won't hurt"'s "no relation," because none of them are talking about dropping to Arizona's level of 49th in the country — at $7,208 per pupil in funding. Arizona conservatives have a higher bar in that they must argue a less-is-fine model that is absolute because the relative won't work.

We burned up all our "relative" points by ranking so low.

Let's take a look at student achievement testing starting in the 4th and 8th grades, take it up through college and then ultimately to the workforce.

The U.S. Department of Education publishes reading and math test results for 4th and 8th grades from the National Education Assessment Program, which covers a sample of students in each state. The website lets you see which others states are significantly better, worse or insignificantly different than your own state. Good news: Our 4th graders are doing OK. Arizona's 8th graders lag, but not horribly. In neither case is there a statistical difference between Arizona and 21 other states. 

That's a fact — but facts lie. Statistically, we may not be significantly different than Connecticut, but the Nutmeg State has twice as many states as Arizona that measure significantly below them. Just eight states are significantly below us in student achievement on these tests, and most are in the South. Another 20 states are significantly better than us in 4th and 8th grade achievement.

The median amount of cash spent per pupil on states ranking well ahead of us stands at $11,400. The median below us is $8,600. We're at $7,200. An Arizona conservative would say "that shows we are outpacing states that spend $1,400 a year more per student than us." It also shows the best states spend $2,800 more per pupil than the lowest achievers, hence, a correlation.

(Full disclosure, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council disputes my numbers suggesting Arizona ranks in the low 30s. They say the we rank 47th on this test but because up is down and black is white, rank us 3rd in best educational policy.)

What about Utah?

But what about Utah? Ah, the glimmer of hope in the less-is-more model. Utah spends less at $6,600 per pupil — last in the country— but their students do well in tests. We haven't gotten to one massive obstacle to student success: Poverty. Utah's poverty rate is just 10.8 percent. Arizona's is 18.5 percent. Interestingly, Utah is the only state in the bottom five for poverty rates that did not score appreciably better than us in student achievement (maybe they could have, if they spent more).

Of the states ranking better than Arizona in the Department of Education testing, 18 had poverty rates below the national average of 14.8 percent and the states with the four highest poverty rates accounted for half the states (one district) ranking below us. Which do you think is cheaper: Buying down Arizona's 18.8 percent poverty rate or investing in schools?

Now, these results do prove conservatives right in that some states spend $12,000, $13,000 or $19,000 per student, per year, and have very little to show in terms of achievement. Providing resources necessary is vital as in any venture but still, folks can screw it up. 

Spending the most is in no way a best practice. Only New Jersey gets any bang for the buck among the top 5 big spenders. However, seven of the 10 states ranking six through 15 are doing really well on these tests.

Speaking of bang for the buck, where states really want to be is 21-30 in national rankings. You don't have to spend through the nose to get these results. Seven of those 10 schools also do very well on the national tests. So students in 18 of the top 30 states in terms of per pupil funding score better than Arizona on this Education Department test, while only two of the bottom 20 states in funding can say the same thing.

An aside to conservatives — because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson: Don't come back at lefties with Utah. The poverty rate and internal dynamic are just different. Come back at us with North Carolina. It's got a high poverty rate, spends very little on K-12 (ranks 46th) but kicks ours and Utah's asses on national tests. North Carolina is a funky state for political nerds.

Higher education

Now let's burrow out of elementary and middle school, the dominion of school districts where words like "pedagogical" are thrown around, tests are "instruments" and people refer to each other as "doctor" even if they don't know a Heimlich maneuver from a Tylenol.

Eventually, colleges get in the act and start testing students for their preparedness to matriculate. The B.S. starts to stop as admissions processes begin, with what were once called "college boards" — the SAT and ACT.

The SAT is a bloody ivory tower all up its own ass with Northeastern snootery. The SAT folks results are pretty useless to compare state against state because some states have a two percent participation rate in the test. Their best students are taking it compared to 70 to 80 percent of students in other states. It's hard to judge and they don't make it easy.

The ACT on the other hand has a better participation rate outside of the Northeast and those rates are telling. Using the ACT also requires a big assumption I will cop to right here and now. I'm assuming — perhaps incorrectly — kids taking the ACT are those who did better in high school and are more prone to think they are ready for college than those who sit it out. It's a bit of a high-wire act because in Arizona, where 35 percent of kids take the SAT, it could be that the best students are only taking the snootier SAT and skewing the ACT sample closer to the middle range of students. So long as our students taking the ACT are a bit above the midpoint of class rankings, this comparison works.

If the comparison works — oh Lordy mother of God: Are we screwed!

For starters our aggregate score is 19.7 (on a 36-point test and one of the worst average scores in the country). A 21 may get you into the University of Arizona. A 25 will get someone maybe accepted into UCLA and cracking 31 is necessary to enroll in an Ivy League School. A 19 or 20 is good enough to land a student at Cal State Northridge — a school so good they keep it in Northridge, Calif. A difference of two points matters.

The states that kicked our 4th graders' asses hold form (with higher funding) in the ACT. The states behind our kids in 4th and 8th grade, catch us and pass us. Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas are all taking the test at a higher rate and all scoring 22 or higher. South Carolina is taking the test at the same rate as Arizona kids and jump ahead of them from their woeful achievement during 4th and 8th grades, beating us by nearly a full point.

But, but I don't know which of their kids are taking ACT's. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to turn on the ugly.

Our college-bound ACT takers were beaten by the entirety of Kentucky's and Tennessee's graduating class. Alabama, a state our 4th graders beat, whupped our college-bound kids with 80 percent of their kids taking the test.

No other state with a participation rate as — shall we say — selectively small as Arizona's scored worse on the ACT. The only states scoring below Arizona were the states that took the ACT at a near universal rate. Mississippi trails us by .7 percentage points but again, 100 percent of their graduates took the test.

The only state we can certainly say has worse college entrance results than Arizona is Hawaii.

Yes, there is absolutely a link between money spent and achievement attained. It's not a magic bullet, but it's a bullet that works if you know how to shoot.

Getting real

Still, this is all liberal mumbo jumbo with academic and K-12 bureaucrats in cahoots with teachers unions to skew information and tell Arizona to spend more on kids, who have horse sense and do fine out there in the world. Spending money is not a panacea.

Right. Let's wipe from the table all the studies, charts and graphs, tests and teachers and effete intellectuals and get down to conservative language.

What are our kids' grown-up skills worth on the free market? What are businesses paying for our kids smarts?

What's our median income?

According to the U.S. Census, Arizona's median income ranks 37th in the country and 11 of the 13 states beneath us are in the South, which is generally a much cheaper place to live than Arizona (spot on the national median for cost of living).

But it's worse than that of course, as anyone knows who's lived here knows. When jobs are posted, how often are they filled by candidates from out of state? I mean the jobs that pay.

Hey, don't listen to me. Listen to Elliott Pollack, the state's economist in-chief at an Arizona State University luncheon for Valley business leaders (I've used this three times now, because it's so telling). 

"Growth is an industry in Arizona," explained Pollack. "In past recoveries, Arizona had a higher rate of employment growth than the nation, and people moved here to fill those jobs. That created demand for houses, goods and services, which created more jobs, which pulled in more people. That hasn't happened in this recovery."

People moved here to fill those jobs. What jobs are people moving to the state ranked 37th in median income to fill? You don't move halfway across the country to ask customers if they would like fries with that. Still, I mean, it's not like that population of job-grabbers are coming to take the great ones from Arizona kids in any great numbers. It's not like the numbers of retirees.

At the same luncheon, Pollack's forecasting partner, Lee McPheters, economist with the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU, put it like this:

"While we think of Arizona as a destination for retirees, by far the largest group of people moving to the state are aged 20-40. They relocate to pursue better economic opportunities. So it is job growth that stimulates population growth."

This is a double-edged guillotine. One edge suggests that when a good job comes up in Arizona's knowledge economy, businesses have to search anywhere but Arizona to fill it. The other edge is that those 20 to 40-year-olds with young families looking to come here and rev our economic engine now get to see that our state doesn't give a rat's ass about the schools their kids would attend. Sorry, 47 states and a district care more about their asses than we do.

Known knowns & know-how

It is so well understood among people in the know that Arizona is dependent on out-of-staters to prop up the economy that to question it is to reveal not knowing what everyone, who is known to know, just knows. No one questions it. Let me try.

If our work force is so well-educated why are we constantly needing the rest of the country to come here to save our bacon? Plenty of states with booming economies aren't in the import business where the product is Midwesterners. Do we really have to keep adding electoral votes every 10 years just to keep our heads above economic currents? Why can't Arizonans do it for themselves, and then import people to serve us fries? (Note: I'm not suggesting a moratorium on growth. Just that some more dollars for schools would help.)

States that spend more get more as a general rule. The best practice isn't massive investment. It's giving schools the resources they need. 

ALEC ranking the state third says it all: Results don't matter. Freedom to do what you want when you want is what counts. That's conservative? Since when?

Arizona has a schools crisis for one reason. It's easy to run on tax cuts. There is always stuff we'd rather do with our money and we vote that way. Freedom. I get it. Arizona spends less on public schools than 47 other states and one district. Do we seriously expect the free market to reward us for avoiding the rigors of things other than what we want to do at any given time?

Talk about the entitlement culture. It's free-market welfare. We are socializing the costs of our K-12, in a real world sense, by billing other states the price of teaching future Arizona residents to come here to do the smart work we can't do for ourselves. We can't pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps or build better mouse traps or accomplish any other metaphor's for self-sufficiency. We need the smart kids from yonder to do that and then pay us to work their customer service calls.

Some argue that the last thing we want to do is damage the economy with higher taxes or more spending. The argument assumes a lack of capacity in the state that proves my point. Arizona can't walk and chew gum the same time. Other states can create strong economies and provide K-12 funding. It seems we in Arizona don't know how.

Maybe we just never learned.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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