Broader Perspective Needed on School Rankings

Sierra Vista Herald
Tuesday, May 4, 2004
Michael Hunter

It is not uncommon to hear the news media and public school advocates describe Arizona’s public school system as "the worst in the nation" or "bottom of the heap." School funding statistics are sometimes lumped together or used interchangeably, and rather recklessly, in order to make a point for or against some school funding proposal.

One article in The Arizona Republic noted that "Arizona’s rock-bottom ranking in education polls has been a deterrent for some firms considering a move to the Valley . . ." (Sept. 13, 2003).

Another memorable Republic editorial in support of the Prop 301 sales tax increase stated that "this measure indisputably is anchored in a single fact: that until it is passed, Arizona teachers are paid worse than any other public school teachers in America" (September 26, 2000). The same editorial concluded: "raising [Arizona] from the bottom of the salary ladder is a vital first step."

While it is widely accepted and quoted that Arizona’s per-pupil expenditures for maintenance and operation (M&O) rank low nationally, it does not follow that instructional staff or teacher pay is last in the nation.

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher’s union in the nation, ranks Arizona 10th for school year 2001-02 in average salaries for "instructional staff" ($51,089).

The NEA defines instructional staff as including "consultants or supervisors of instruction, principles, teachers, guidance personnel, librarians, psychological personnel, and other instructional staff." The instructional staff category does not include such positions such as "administrative staff, attendance personnel, health service personnel, or clerical personnel."

Arizona’s average instructional staff salaries grew 7.5% between 2000-01 and 2001-02, ranking 3rd nationally in terms of percentage growth. Between 1991-92 and 2001-02, the NEA calculates the percentage change in instructional staff salaries, adjusted for inflation, at 8.7%, ranking Arizona 11th nationally.

Calculating these average salaries as a percentage of per capita personal income is a common method that accounts for differences in the underlying wealth between states. Arizona’s average instructional staff salary is nearly double the per capita personal income figure, placing this state at the top of the national ranking.

Arizona faces many of the same challenges that confront other rapidly growing states. According to the NEA, only Nevada and Florida surpassed Arizona in the percentage change in public school enrollment between Fall 2000 and Fall 2001. Only Nevada had a larger percentage change in high school graduates between 1991-92 and 2001-02.

Such rapid growth is reflected in many national statistics. According to the American Federation of Teachers, Arizona is among states with the least experienced teaching force in the U.S.

Arizona teachers also have full classrooms. With an estimated 18 to 20 students to every teacher, Arizona ranks high compared to other states, putting us in the company of other fast-growing states, such as California, Utah, Washington, Florida, and Nevada.

Arizona has also had to commit enormous sums of taxpayers dollars to the construction and renovation of school buildings. In fact, data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that in 2000-01, Arizona outpaced every other state in per-pupil expenditures for capital.

Despite these challenges, Arizona’s classroom teachers fair better than one might be led to think. According to the NEA, Arizona’s average teacher salary of $40,894 ranks 28th (between South Carolina and Vermont) for school year 2001-2002. Adjusting the average teacher salary figures for differences between states in per capita personal income, Arizona climbs to 14th in the national ranking.

Contrasting the last decade’s growth in instructional staff pay, the percentage change in inflation adjusted average teacher salaries ranks Arizona 31st. Nevertheless, between 2000-01 and 2001-02, average pay for teachers in Arizona climbed 7.5%, ranking 4th nationally.

While Arizona certainly has many demographic challenges, Arizona’s academic outcomes are not as bad as you might have been led to believe. For example, the Arizona Legislative Exchange Council ranks Arizona 17th in their overall ranking of states by academic achievement.

The almost constant drumbeat from several Arizona news outlets and members of the spending lobby is that Arizona schools rank last in everything that’s good and first in everything that’s bad. Not only is this incorrect, the damage Arizona is willing to inflict on itself by continuing to propagate this misleading information will have a long-lasting impact on our reputation among other states.