Election over, education is solved? Here’s what’s wrong and how to keep it a top issue

The endless cycle of political television, radio and social media ads have, mercifully, stopped.

We may be lulled into believing our civic duty has been accomplished now that the votes have been cast, exceeding modern-day midterm turnout records.

Not so fast.

The data on the state of education in Arizona shows that, come January, the hard work truly begins – that of governing. And, for those of us who voted, holding our elected officials accountable.

Education was a prominent and recurring theme in Arizona’s newly decided midterm elections. And for good reason.

Less than a third finished a degree

The 2018 College Enrollment and Completion Report released a few weeks ago by the Arizona Board of Regents shows the gravity of the K-12 public education system in Arizona.

According to the report, “Current enrollment data indicates that in 2017, nearly half – 47.4 percent − of Arizona’s high school graduating class did not enroll in a two- or four-year college after graduation, a rate that has remained static over the past two years.

“Among 2011 high school graduates, just 27.3 percent had completed a two- or four-year degree six years after high school graduation.”

Key findings from the report are even more sobering. If current trends hold, a mere 17.2 percent of today’s current ninth graders will graduate from a four-year college by 2028. And “among 71,337 total high school graduates in 2017, nearly half – 33,812 – did not enroll in a two- or four-year institution.”

Child poverty is a major factor

If you are one of nearly 25 percent of Arizona’s children living in poverty, the odds are especially grim.

Poverty for school-aged children is one of the leading factors in determining how a student performs in school.

The recent Regents’ report highlights this reality, noting that Arizona’s top 30 percent of high schools produce nearly 84 percent of the state’s high school graduates who go on to complete college. By contrast, just 16.3 percent of Arizona’s college graduates come from the remaining 70 percent of Arizona’s high schools.

It doesn’t take a college degree to figure out the socioeconomic statistics of the vast majority of these high schools.

Charter schools are making progress

Arizona is making some progress in getting students to and through college by providing access to a high-quality education for the 185,000 students attending public charter schools.

The latest AzMERIT assessment results show public charter students of all ethnic backgrounds outperforming the statewide pass rate for their peer group.

Analyzing four-year trend data reveals other promising results. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, “Hispanic students in public charter schools outpaced the growth of their statewide peers, achieving eight percentage points of growth in both English and Math from 2015-2018.

“Economically disadvantaged students in public charters outpaced the growth of their statewide peers, achieving nine percentage points of growth in Math and seven percentage points of growth in English.”

While positive, the results seen in Arizona’s public charter schools impact only a fraction of public school students. All of Arizona’s K-12 public school children are counting on us to continue speaking up – standing up – for them and their future.

3 things our elected leaders must do

So, what does this look like – for our newly elected officials and the governed alike?

1. Learn a new vocabulary.

Public school children are not “those” or “other.” They are ours. All of ours. Arizona’s public school children have the same infinite value and worth as our own family’s children and grandchildren. They must be treated as such.

2. Prioritize education in Arizona.

Lawmakers can rightfully argue that education comprises the second-largest portion of our state’s budget.

But, like individual family budgets, our state’s allocations within the educational line item can always be reviewed, ensuring maximum efficiency and return on investment. A good place to begin would be an overhaul of Arizona’s antiquated 35-year-old education funding formula, enacted before I graduated from high school.

3. Listen.

Take the time to visit with public school families, students, teachers, principals and superintendents. Be sure this includes all public schools – traditional district and public charter.

Listen to the challenges of providing and receiving a high-quality public education in a state that ranks 46th in the nation, earning a “D+” grade in the 2018 Quality Counts report by Education Week. While you’re at it, listen to Arizona’s business leaders who are demanding more funding for education to create the educated workforce Arizona needs to compete in a global economy.

How you can help public schools, too

1. Insist on a new vocabulary.

It bears repeating. Public school children are not “those” or “other.” They are ours. All of ours. Hold lawmakers accountable to treat Arizona’s public school children with the same infinite value and worth as our own family’s children and grandchildren. They must be stewarded as such.

2. Prioritize education in Arizona.

As families, we understand the necessity of living within our means. We also know how to reprioritize how we spend our family dollars to get the most bang for our buck. When it comes to our children, we don’t hesitate to get a second or even a third job to ensure our kids have what they need to be successful.

We can require our legislators do the same, asking them to re-evaluate what we as a state are already investing in and finding ways to increase revenues allocated for our children’s education.

3. Ensure our voices are heard.

Call, write and email your lawmakers, asking them to visit our public schools, both district and charter. Hold them accountable to address the challenges of delivering a high-quality public education in a state that ranks 50th in per-pupil spending and 48th in teacher pay.

Our new legislators will be sworn into office on Jan. 14. For the sake of the more than one million children attending Arizona’s K-12 public schools, it needs to be a new day for public education.

Arizona candidates put us through endless political ads leading up to the Nov. 6 election. Now it’s time for those who got elected to make good on their promises. Our public school children – and our state – deserve nothing less.

Rhonda Cagle is Chief Communications and Development Officer for Imagine Schools, a national network of non-profit public charter schools. She is an occasional contributor to The Arizona Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @RhondaCagle1.

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