Must We Sue Our Way to a Better Education System?

That’s the question many are asking and some groups are proposing in order to force the state of Arizona to meet the needs of its students. We now have possible lawsuits against the state to try and force repairs for crumbling school facilities in poor neighborhoods as well as a lawsuit aimed at equalizing the funding sources for traditional public schools and charter schools.

Between the lawsuits and voter initiatives for increased school funding, one must ask where are our legislators sit in this mess. Why are we turning to the courts and to ballot initiates to fix our failing education system? Why are those in charge not doing the job instead?

Arizonans are obviously upset with our embarrassingly low test scores and rankings and are willing to pay more to improve education, even if it means additional taxes. And yet, our legislators continue to slash funding, balancing the budget at the expense of education, while refusing to consider any additional revenue streams. How in the world did we end up with such a disconnect between voter wishes and legislative actions?

During the election season, every candidate, no matter what party he or she is from, claims to be pro-education. During the election season, every candidate bemoans Arizona’s educational crisis and pledges to make fixing it a priority. During the legislative session, most of those same candidates vote to slash funding, refuse to search out alternative revenue streams and then pat themselves on the back for ‘doing the right thing’ by claiming the cuts could have been much, much worse.

And sadly, many in the electorate, fall for such nonsense. Many continue to return those same individuals back to the capitol. Many believe there was nothing their elected official could have done in this financial crisis to prevent funding cuts to education. And many have absolutely no idea how their elected official even voted when it came to education funding or reform.

It is, quite plainly, voter apathy that leads to the disconnect between what the electorate says it values and what our elected officials value. And we have no one to blame except ourselves.

Recently, 12 News held an education town hall in Phoenix to discuss possible school solutions. They brought together leaders in education reform such as the head of the AEA (Arizona Education Association) as well as chairs of successful charter schools and educational nonprofits such as Stand for Children. Curiously, there wasn’t a single elected official on the two panels, which of course, begs the question of whether we have a single elected official in this state with either the knowledge or the gumption to offer any solutions.

To be fair, our state Superintendent of Instruction, John Huppenthal, did offer a few words via video as well as an example of what he deems a solution. The example, however, was a school in southern Arizona that places all of its children in cubicles where they spend their day learning lessons off a computer. There was no mention of the arts or of any type of hands-on learning like what one would receive in a science lab, just a large room of cubicles.

As the mother of two very active boys who love to learn by doing, I can’t say I was impressed with the Superintendent’s idea of a solution. And based on comments made by several of the panelists, I don’t think many of the educational experts were impressed, either. I do, however, see what drew the Superintendent to this particular charter school. Educating students by computer is an incredibly inexpensive way to school a child. There is little need for teachers, particularly teachers with specialties in the arts or athletics, and little need for supplies such as books and science kits.

No doubt this type of bare-bones educational model is appealing for Arizona legislators who continually ask schools to do more with less, but is this the type of environment we really want for our kids? Does sitting in front of a computer all day long engage the mind in the type of creative thinking Americans take pride in?

I don’t think so. But I do believe there is consensus on some very basic and important reform items.

Every panelist at the town hall discussion agreed on and emphasized the need for higher expectations. We ask too little of our students, too little of our educators, too little of our parents and far, far too little of our legislators. We’re sending too many high school seniors off to college with the bare minimum number of classes and the bare minimum amount of subject knowledge. Our college and university professors should be livid with the amount of remedial work needed to get their students up to par. And instead of lowering standards to meet the needs of incoming freshmen, they should be making it more difficult for students to enter and be putting more pressure on local high schools to increase academic rigor.

One of the panelists, Craig Barrett, the former chair of Intel Corp and current chair of BASIS charter school, spoke about the need for content expertise, saying we should have teachers who are experts in their individual subjects. While Andrew Morrill, the head of the AEA, brought up the point that success in the workforce doesn’t necessarily carry over into success in the classroom. Both make good arguments but in the end, it comes down to two things… teacher qualifications and teacher pay.

Our teacher positions are consistently filled with graduates in the bottom half of their classes. If we want our teachers to be respected professionals, we must insist that they be highly trained instructors. We must expect more. But as a nation, if we want the best and brightest teachers, we must be willing to offer pay commensurate with what those individuals would receive in private sector jobs. In other words, if we want expertise, we must be willing to pay for it.

The best, and I would argue the most important quote of the night came from the superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District, Karen Williams. She said if you want to know the biggest predictor of school success, look at its ZIP code. Time and time again, schools in ZIP codes with a high rate of poverty have a low rate of success.

And it’s easy to understand why. It’s much more difficult to educate students whose basic needs are not being met. It’s much more difficult to solicit parent involvement from parents who must work long hours to ensure their children are fed and have little time for homework and school activities. It’s much more difficult to entice good teachers to work in schools they would not wish to send their own children to and in neighborhoods they do not wish to live in.

And it is in these neighborhoods that traditional public schools are almost always the only choice provided for a child’s education. The very successful charter schools we hear about in Arizona tend to reside in successful ZIP codes that already offer a leg up in education. And the school choice our legislators tout when offering additional tax incentives for private school scholarships rarely make their way down to the students most in need of a choice.

That’s not to say that competition from charter and private schools hasn’t made a positive difference in this state. School competition has been a boon to our education system. It’s evident as we see our traditional schools offering things such as International Baccalaureate programs, specialized gifted education and longer school days to entice families outside of their boundaries to enroll. Charter schools, in particular, have forced many other schools to rethink what and how they teach students, and that is a very good thing.

But in the end, regardless of competition, all our schools will remain below par if our state leaders continue to put education near the bottom of their priority list. Depending on which study one quotes, Arizona ranks 49th or 50th in the nation in per pupil spending. We spend, on average, $3000 less per pupil than other states, and our dismal test scores reflect that disparity.

Make no mistake about it, we are failing our kids in Arizona and across the U.S. We continue to languish while our global competitors continue to excel. Whether it’s math, science or reading, American students aren’t even close to the top ten, with rankings far below other industrialized countries, and that should be unacceptable to all of us.

We have spent years talking about our dismal test scores and years talking about the need for reform. Thousands of experts have spent a great deal of time and money researching ways to improve our education system. The time for talk has passed. The time for action is now.

Lawsuits alone will not solve our education crisis. It will take electorate pressure and public will to force change. If we wish to remain the greatest country in the world, we need to act like the greatest country in the world and stop throwing away our greatest resource… our children.

If we wish to make the changes needed to turn the education tide, all of us, parents, students, teachers, business owners and others need to make education this nation’s number one policy issue and force our leaders to take note. We must vote for leaders serious about providing education reform and funding. If we continue to be apathetic, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be too uneducated to realize what we’ve lost.



  1. Kirk

    We have become a state of “why isn’t the school raising my kid better”? Parents get off of your butts and get in the game. Watch what your kid is doing and get involved with there education. Your kids need parenting. Watch what the teachers are doing and call them out on it. If there not doing a good job then find out why. If parents would quit making excuses and get involved things would automatically shift to higher education. As long as parents keep expecting to elect someone thats going to make there kid smarter…it’s not going to happen. Wake up Arizona parents. We all have jobs and it’s tough finding the time, but to me there is nothing more precious than my kid.

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