Improve Arizona's education
Arizona Republic
Feb. 23, 2008


The Arizona Department of Commerce projects that by 2013, 84 percent of Arizona's newly created jobs paying a "livable wage" will require at least an associate's degree, while half will require a bachelor's or advanced degree.

This is a 21st-century reality, yet too few Arizona high-school graduates possess the drive, qualifications and access to college to meet this challenge.

Based on current trends in our public-school system, only 17 percent of this year's crop of ninth-graders will earn a college degree within six years of graduation.

Of the 35 percent of them who will immediately enroll in college, many will arrive inadequately prepared for college-level math, reading or English.

More than half of our high-school graduates have not taken sufficient courses to even be considered for admission to the state's public universities.

The system is letting too many of our kids down, and it starts early. We know that quality early-learning experiences can prepare all children to learn, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet early care and education in Arizona lack a systematic framework, and we fail to treat these early-learning environments as a vital part of the education continuum.

Disproportionately, low-income students start kindergarten behind and rarely catch up, trailing their more advantaged peers by 20 to 30 percentage points on most tests. But our problems cannot be blamed solely on a challenging set of demographics - our non-low-income students rank 39th in the U.S. in eighth-grade math when compared with their peers.

System conditions must be addressed. Teachers and administrators need better training, pay and professional development. Arizona ranks 49th in per-pupil spending and 48th for need-based college-grant aid. And although we have an array of school choices, there is little accountability for the performance of charter schools.

This news is grim, but Arizona is not alone.

America once led the world in educational attainment, but today, we rank 15th in college completion among industrialized nations. Our competitors overseas are educating their children at an unprecedented rate, surpassing the U.S. in nearly every measure of academic performance.

The countries with the most-educated people will thrive in the 21st century, of this we can be certain. The question is: Will the U.S. be one of them?

And will Arizona have an enviable education system, one that produces top talent and attracts top companies? Will our graduates be able to compete on a global scale for the best jobs?

There is more to the story than this. We invite you to read a new report produced by the Arizona Community Foundation and the Ellis Center for Educational Excellence titled, "Educating Arizona: Assessing Our Education System (Birth-Grade 12)," and its companion report, "Building Our Foundation: Assessing Early Care and Education in Arizona."

The result of more than a year's worth of work by local and national education experts, these reports provide a candid and comprehensive assessment of our education system so that philanthropies like ours, plus businesses, government, parents, students and educators can access all the relevant information and develop an informed opinion.

Although we must make investments to accommodate our unparalleled growth, we can't lose sight of the critical need to invest in human capital. We have to build brain power, and we can do it by increasing our investment in education.

Bob King is president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation. Susan Budinger is a board member of the Arizona Community Foundation.