The Bad News About Arizona Schools
As with any state, Arizona has high-performing schools and under-performing schools. However Arizona is different than other states in two regards. First, Arizona has taken a rare and aggressive approach to school choice. In Arizona, residents are allowed to send their child to any school in the state on a “space obtainable” basis. The students can move across school or already district boundaries and the budget dollars follow the students. The term used in Arizona for this is open enrollment and it has become a important of Arizona K-12 education.
The second thing that makes Arizona schools rare is the degree to which they fund (or rather don’t fund) schools. Arizona ranks 48th out of 51 (include the District of Columbia) in terms of per pupil expenditures across the country. On a relative basis, the State of Arizona simply does not provide its schools with as much monetary resources as other states provide to their schools. And the gap is meaningful.
Arizona voters do tend to be fiscally conservative. The state also is an early proponent of charter schools and, as noted earlier, school choice. The basic question is this: does the introduction of school choice and reliance on charter schools conquer this funding gap?
A recent research study identified the top 2% and 10% of Arizona K-12 schools based on their performance on the Terra Nova test. The Terra Nova is a nationally normed test that places schools into percentile rankings versus other schools on a national basis. It is highly regarded tool and is often a better measure of school performance than are state uniform tests.
The list below was compiled, in part, to assist parents in selecting from Arizona’s best schools for their child’s education. The list below represents the best 25 schools in Arizona among those with over 200 students. The results are based on the average Spring 2009 Terra Nova scores across all grade levels within a given school.
Mesa Academy for progressive Studies
University High School
Gilbert Classical Academy Jr.
Arizona School For The Arts
Great Hearts Academies – Chandler Prep
Great Hearts Academies – Veritas Prep
Self Development Charter School
Cambridge Academy East
Tempe Preparatory Academy
GPS Traditional Academy
Cheyenne Traditional Elementary School
Great Heart Academies – Scottsdale Prep
Keystone Montessori Charter School
bright Beginnings School #1
Kyrene Altadena Middle School
Esperero Canyon Middle School
McDowell Mountain Elementary School
Orange Grove Middle School
Quartz Hill Elementary
Cochise Elementary School
This list of the top 25 schools in Arizona contains private, charter and public schools.
The above list represents the top 2% of schools in Arizona. The study compared the top 2% of schools with where they would rank on a national basis. The answer: as a group they scored at the 85% percentile. This may sound like an accomplishment however the top 2% should, all else being equal, perform at the 99% percentile nationally as a group. This represents a 14% shortfall from where this group of Arizona schools should be performing nationally. Considered in this light their accomplishments, while important, are muted by this national comparison.
The study broadened the scope of the “top school examination” to include the complete top decile (the top 10%) of Arizona schools. The top 140 schools, representing the top decile of schools in Arizona scored, on average, at the 77th percentile nationally. consequently while this group of top schools scored on average at the 95th percentile within the state, they were only able to reach the 77th percentile nationally. This represents an already larger 18% gap on state-vs-national percentile ranking.
It is difficult to look at these very straightforward numbers and easily dismiss the issue of public education in Arizona. To be sure, this examination is simplistic in its design and does not represent an exhaustive review of educational issues in Arizona. However, many of this issues that Arizona schools confront are very similar to the issues faced by schools in other states.
In short, Arizona schools clearly underperform the rest of the nation. State and local officials must address this issue with a particular emphasis on funding. The State has conducted an amazing experiment in school choice; the anecdotal evidence of its impact appears positive. However the without of funding represents a clear challenge that no structural change can diminish. Arizona has a responsibility to better fund schools.