WalletHub Survey on Education in Arizona

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A new survey by WalletHub ranks Arizona near the bottom in terms of several education indicators. Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, will discuss the survey and the state of Arizona’s education system.

TED SIMONS: A new education survey by the financial website WalletHub ranks Arizona near the bottom in several categories. Joe Thomas, President of the Arizona Education Association, joins us now to talk about the report's findings.

Good to see you. Before we go too much further here, what is WalletHub?

JOE THOMAS: You know, it's evidently a group of people that want to rate our schools and let people know what the schools look like across the nation, and we have various different groups that rate them, and this is the most recent one that's come out, and it's not great news for Arizona.

TED: It's one it's not these "goofiest city in America" or the "baddest city"… is it one of those deals? Is that what they do?

JOE: I don't know if that's what they do. You'd have to contact WalletHub.

TED: Alright. In terms of the study now, most of these things look at per-pupil spending, how much the state contributes to education, these sorts of things? How much was money factored into these studies?

JOE: It's usually the core of almost every study that you have, because we know when you put an investment in your classroom, you put investment with your students; you're going to have the outcomes that you want. Arizona seems to be stuck with that idea, as we have about 48-49 states that invest a little bit more than we do--some of them a lot more than we do.

So you have to look at more than that. You have to look at class size. You need to look at what interventions you have available. What electives you have available. What opportunities and how are you engaging your students. But if you track all that backwards, it goes to money, and what money are you putting into the system.

TED: Now, this particular study, Arizona 4th worst K-12 system in the country. 4th worst.

JOE: Well, says they. I mean, I have a lot of teachers that would argue they're doing very good work in their classroom. But when you look at the other states in the nation and what they offer their students, you see that Arizona has the largest class size in the nation.

We are one of the lower nations--excuse me--lower states when it comes to teacher pay. We have a lot of pieces, easy strategies that we could implement that would raise our ranking but more importantly it would give the kinds of schools that Arizona says they want.

We want to be the best schools. We want to have great schools, good student engagement and show student growth. Instead, we see the effects through whatever measurement you want to give of a system that is completely pushed to the point of stress.

TED: The Governor's office called this particular study baloney. Valid?

JOE: I don't know. I don't know if I would call it baloney. If it had said that we were the 4th best state in the nation, I think they would have had other words for it. Sometimes you attack the messenger as opposed to the message.

TED: I think what they were trying to say is because of school choice it makes a… a study like this makes numbers like these completely irrelevant.

JOE: I think if you dig inside Arizona what you'll see is inside of that phrase of school choice, charter schools receive more money from the state than our district schools do. They are able to provide lower class sizes. They're able to engage students in a different way. And so maybe we need a study that really looks at what are the differences inside the state of Arizona. Are we truly having a level playing field between our district schools and our charter schools? And if we do, how do we make those better opportunities?

TED: I was going to say those who say we're nowhere near as bad as all these studies seem to indicate and all the critics want to espouse, US News and World Report, three Arizona high school's in the top 10 of U.S. public schools. They point to that and they say, with three in the top 10 in the country something must be going pretty well.

JOE: And the U.S. News and World Report measures how many AP courses your students pass.

TED: What is AP?

JOE: An AP course is a course that you take that's like an honors course that you can earn college credit. And you have certain schools in the state that tailor to that type of student. Those same schools that have the highest AP graduation rates, you'll see them start with with 50 kids in 8th grade and kind of whittle that down to 25 kids that actually graduate.

So you're creating these magnet schools. It's unfair to compare those schools against a school in Eloy that has kids that are probably just as smart and want to engage just as well. What we need to look at, I think, as a true measurement of how our schools are doing, is how many classrooms do we have this year that are going to start off without teachers?

Last year we had almost 1500 classrooms that didn't have a certified teacher in them. That points to the working conditions inside the school. It points to my colleagues feeling like they're not being supported in the way that they can be successful. And when teachers are successful, students are successful.

TED: Even after Prop 123, teachers are feeling that?

JOE: Well Prop 123, that just came in at the end of last year, in May. Thankfully, the voters passed Proposition 123, and remember that that settled a lawsuit. That was money that was already owed to educators. But the Arizona Schools Now is a coalition has a graph that's very easy to understand, that even though that brought in significant amount of money and it was very, very necessary we have cut over a billion dollars from our schools every year since 2008.

Every year we have underfunded our schools where we were relative back in 2008. So we're talking about the ability to repair air conditioners, patch ceilings, buy new buses, lower class size, provide state funding for full day kindergarten… all that was cut from the budget when we started to go into the recession and we have never put that money back in. That should be our next step, is just getting back to how good we were back in 2008.

TED: The impact of rapid population growth in Arizona. How does that impact education studies like these?

JOE: I don't know how it impacts the studies. I know how it impacts the classroom, though.

As a classroom teacher, a month in when I would get a new student, I was expected to have that student show the same gains by the end of the year. And as a school--our district schools take everyone. And so when people move in, they know they can rely on the fact that the school down on the corner will take their students and give them a place where they can be safe and they can learn.

TED: The impact of high poverty rates in Arizona.

JOE: Poverty has an incredible impact upon our schools. I would encourage anyone that doesn't understand that to talk to our teachers that work in high poverty schools where the children feel safer at school than they do at home, or they have more resources at school than they do at home. And it's no fault of any individual. It's just where our economy is right now.

So we have to overcome the challenges of just engaging an adolescent that would rather be out playing Pokémon Go, but now we have to engage a student that maybe is hungry because they didn't eat all morning or last night. We have to engage a student in learning that doesn't know where they're going to sleep that night because they're moving from home to home or they're homeless.

TED: And you have to engage a student who may not be an English-speaking student.

JOE: Absolutely. Our students in Arizona require more resources to acquire English as their second language.

TED: So with all that in mind, everything you talked about here, for those who look at this study--we're constantly 45 to 50, seems to be our happy ground there…

JOE: I wouldn't call it happy.

TED: Yeah, but it certainly seems to be where we land a lot. For those who say we're simply not that bad, common sense dictates, everyone can go out there and see we're not that bad, you say…

JOE: Well, I would say that that's certainly not a teacher that's talking. They need to talk to our education support professionals, our teachers; they need to see what's going on in our schools.

There are amazing things going on in our schools, don't get me wrong. We have teachers, courageous teachers that have stayed through all this. We have a lot of teachers that are exiting the profession, they're leaving far before a 10 or 20 or even a 30-year career and they're going on to do something else.

The Department of Education gave us a number, we have 92,000 people in the state that hold teaching certificates and 25,000 of them are not in classrooms. We don't have a teacher shortage; we have a shortage of people willing to work in these conditions. And we can change it, and one place we can change it is the upcoming primary election, and after that the general election.

If your listeners want to go to vote4schoolsaz.com, they can look at the legislators that our teachers interviewed, and ask them, based on their voting record and what they said they were going to do, who are we going to support moving ahead. That's where our AEA Fund for Children's Education… the legislators that we're going to support.

TED: I have to stop you right there. Thanks for joining us.

JOE: Thanks for having me on, Ted.

Joe Thomas: president of the Arizona Education Association

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