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Arizona has ‘Big Mo’ in education

Glenn Hamer

Glenn Hamer

For those who say that the state of our schools is “poor,” the rhetoric doesn’t match reality. That folks in positions of educational leadership subscribe to such a gloomy view of Arizona’s schools is disturbing.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Arizona boasts three of the top-10 public high schools out of 19,400 schools nationally. For a state that that is supposedly limping along, we’re in rare air.

Before I get accused of cherry-picking good news, there are also rankings that view our schools through a more cynical lens. But even those studies deserve a closer look.

According to Quality Counts, Arizona is 4th in the nation in closing the reading gap among students who qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch. We’re 8th in the nation on fourth-grade math achievement gains. We’re 16th for eighth grade reading gains. These academic gains are more than just a blind squirrel finding a nut. We’re doing something right.

Consider some of our outstanding school districts. Mesa Public Schools, for example, is ranked a top-10 district among big-city districts, and the district is home to Arizona’s Teacher of the Year. School districts around the state are earning “A” rankings, from Benson Unified in the southeast corner of the state, to tiny Ash Fork in the north, to Scottsdale Unified and Peoria Unified in metro Phoenix.

And we’re bucking the belief that demography is destiny. Down on the border south of Yuma, the Gadsden Elementary District deserves major kudos for what it’s doing. Schools like Ed Pastor Elementary and Desert View Elementary are earning “A” ratings. These are schools serving populations that have nearly 100 percent participation in the Free and Reduced Lunch program. The leaders at these schools are demonstrating that school cultures that maintain high expectations and no-excuses environments work. And we know they work because their kids continue to make huge growth and academic gains.

Arizona is a leader in education reforms that the rest of the country can learn from: Best in class parental choice, from open enrollment to a host of charter school options; a focus on making sure that students can read before they exit the third grade; strong math and science graduation requirements; and a dedication to high standards. The Chamber has been on the front lines of proposing or supporting these changes, and they are working.

Senate President Andy Biggs is right when he says, as he did at our Legislative Forecast Luncheon earlier this month, “Do we need to make adjustments? Perhaps. But if you want to consistently say to business, ‘Hey, you know what? We have a crappy education system,’ you are not helping the state, you aren’t helping the education system, and you are hindering our economy, because we do have a good education system…”

Of course, we can do better. But rather than simply criticize, our leaders should be working to accelerate improvement. A good start would be to embrace the types of reforms touted by Gov. Ducey, ensuring that all students, regardless of neighborhood, have access to our best public schools.

Arizona’s education system – district, charter and private – is headed in the right direction. It’s irresponsible to criticize the state of our schools and ignore what is working.

– Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


  1. True, but you cannot continue to starve the educational system, have teachers work without raises and a living wage. To do so will continue to erode the system.

    I am a retired educator, but for the last 10 years of my career for every 1-2% raise I had, inflation would go up 3-4%. Our current State Superintendent of Education, when asked about raising teacher’s salaries, said during the campaign that she expected dedication from teachers. Dedication does not pay the bills. I wonder how much better education could be in our state if a person could support a family on a beginning teacher’s salary. I was told when I entered the filed of education that I would never be rich, but I would be comfortable. For beginning teachers now, comfortable is out the window.

    Again, I agree with the spirit of the article. Educators do amazing thing with limited resources, but there is so much more we could do with adequate resources.

    Disclaimer: I was not a member of any teacher’s union. They are part of the problem.

  2. The first comment was “Yeah but… Our education system sucks. And the teachers can’t possibly be doing well under these horrific circumstances ”

    Ok I’m summarizing my interpretation, but really, where are the people talking about how great education is in Arizona?

    I’m sure some families and businesses havent come here because of the rhetoric. Just stop it already. The negative Nellies are destroying our State.

  3. What I find particularly interesting is the thin evidence you offer to support the notion that Arizona schools are doing just fine. That is all you could find, and that should tell you something. Are there some successes? Absolutely. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. I appreciate the desire to tone down the rhetoric and focus on substance. On that point, I do agree with you, but you lose my respect when you offer lame evidence regarding “A” schools as proof that Arizona is doing just fine. At best, it is disingenuous. Our rating system is (rightfully) based in large part on student growth. Students can grow substantially and still not be where they need to be in order to be competitive in a rapidly changing world.
    Don’t kid yourself. The education system in Arizona is crappy. There are some great schools and great teachers succeeding IN SPITE of our system, but no one is succeeding because of it.

  4. Arizona must work to create a culture that promotes learning, education and protection of our children. Instead we have become a culture of protecting the interests of big business including our prison system. Big business has not stepped up and taken actions to support our schools. They have stepped up to lobby for tax cuts for their businesses. The voters voted to support education and the legislature is saying we do not have to listen to voters or the courts. This legislature is willing to disregard the voters? Instead of re-prioritizing and pursuing all of the options, including asking voters and big business to help with the costs. Legislators will sacrifice our children for political ideologies. Makes no sense. Are legislators strong enough to say NO to big business….no tax cuts for you…find a way for you to make your profits and pay your taxes. Instead they are saying NO to the future of our children and willing to fight the courts on this issue.

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