Home / Opinion / Commentary / Arizona’s public education is not failing; students are making outstanding progress

Arizona’s public education is not failing; students are making outstanding progress


As we begin a new year and a new legislative session, we brace for the same tired talking points deployed in order to denigrate Arizona’s education system, portraying our public schools as failing and deplorable. I can no longer let this false narrative go unchallenged. I will say this plainly – Arizona’s K-12 public education is not failing. In fact, Arizona is leading the nation.

Governor Doug Ducey talked about this false narrative during his State of the State address, sharing the remarkable things happening in Arizona schools and how they are charting a new path forward. This is reality. Arizona schools are leading the nation in closing the achievement gap. It’s true!

Rep. Debbie Lesko

Sen. Debbie Lesko

Arizona 4th graders in 2011 had made progress but were still below the national average, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). Fast forward to 2015. Those 4th graders had the highest math gains in the nation and 8th graders scored two points above the national average in math. The critics of our education system would have you believe this is a fluke and not representative of the state. Well, Arizona also leads the nation in 4th grade science gains in 2015 and was in the top 10 in gains for 8th grade science. We saw noticeable gains in reading over the last decade. The facts are clear. Arizona is making outstanding progress in student performance.

Even after all of those successes, the tired old education establishment says those gains are only because the gap is getting larger between high income students and low income students. Is the establishment right? No. Arizona is systematically closing the achievement gap with considerable gains for our low-income and minority students. In 2015 Arizona was tied for first in reading gains for African-American students.

You might be wondering how all of this could be true, when you are constantly inundated with media reports about our “failing” public schools. It’s a mantra that has seeped into our consciousness, but it’s fake news. The reality is that in 2016 Arizona had three of the top 10 high schools nationwide. We have expanded choice for students, empowered parents and families and created a strong accountability system to keep things charging forward. These improvements didn’t just happen spontaneously – it was because of a systematic effort by Republicans to make change outside of pumping dollars into the coffers of district administrators.

Are these gains enough to truly ensure that all Arizona students have access to an excellent education? No, but they are real and profound and the result of sound policies to move the needle on student achievement. As the governor said in his State of the State, “We can advocate for more resources, and also admit we have so many great schools, and great teachers.” We must continue to hold schools accountable, demand high expectations and results and continue to empower parents and families to make the best educational choices.

— Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Peoria, represents District 21, is Senate president pro tempore and Senate Appropriations chair.


  1. Great to see progress in the education of our children but there seems to be a disconnect between how we view ourselves and how others view us.

    In cities where K-16 schools, colleges and universities produce we all prosper. Students learn to be productive engaged informed citizens and the workforce benefits from engaged and informed workers. Higher wage commercial businesses relocate and expand because of our talent base.

    Not to take away anything from our successful K-12 schools and the evident progress but outside observers (like the well regarded Education Week) still say our overall state Report Card is D+. According to research conducted by the Social Science Research Council funded by the Hilton Foundation the Phoenix Metropolitan area has the highest level of disconnected (not in school or work) youth (16-24) in the country with nearly 1 in 5 of our youth isolated from structure in our society.

    I am hopeful that by leveraging our successes and continuing to increase investment in our children we can increase prosperity for everyone. We do need our Not for Profit Agencies, Schools, Legislature and our Governor to work together and lead the way to that prosperity.

  2. Oh please. Give the teachers, working for peanuts because of the Republicans, the real credit. Is there such a thing as “fake opinion”? You sure can dish it, Senator. And yes, your rich kids still do much better than the rest. Republicans again?

  3. This puff piece is full of disinformation and misleading data. Ms Lesko is correct, Arizona schools are not failing at least totally, but they are woefully underfunded. We have known this for a long time, indeed our public schools suffered the brunt of impact of the recession, and funds have not been restored, thanks to legislators like Sen Lesko. NAEP data not withstanding, US News, the NEA, Wallet hub all rank Arizona’s public education near the bottom. Sen Lesko selectively picks a few pieces of data from NAEP to make a point but overall we are, sadly, in the bottom ten of States for education. Primarily this can be traced to a lack of funds from State coffers. The fact that we are not even lower is a tribute to our dedicated teachers; I submit that we are simply taking advantage of their professionalism.
    She constantly refers to “tired talking points from the education establishment” as they seek to close the funding gap between us and the national average. I for one am really sick of hearing the “tired talking points” of the far right to say, “lower taxes grow the economy” It has not worked in 25 years perhaps we need to try a new strategy

  4. The worst way to assess the performance of ANYTHING is by how much money you throw at it. Results are what matter, not spending. We need better ways to measure academic performance, that’s the only way to identify and correct problems so we can give kids the best possible opportunities in life.

  5. Making gains is not such an admirable position when you start at a point below average–pretty misleading! If we continue the trend of doing away with Arizona’s participation in national tests, Sen. Lesko won’t have to be just misleading, she can make up all the stats she wants.

  6. Arizona is at the bottom of all state statistics. Some schools have made gains in closing the achievement gap, but continue to struggle in keeping good teachers and the funds to pay them. The Arizona public school system has years of limited funding and it shows. It will not be fixed immediately and requires consistency in funding from early childhood development, K-12 and college preparation and completion. We recognize that our interest include a well educated and prepared workforce and that corporations are constantly seeking new talent, but they also seek corporate tax cuts that impact the state’s revenues. The impact of these tax cuts impact the state of Arizona’s public education system because there is less revenue. We cannot continue to handle the funding of our public school system based on what cuts we give to corporations. Makes no sense and we implore legislators to see it for what it is. Do not jeopardize our children’s future to make profits for large businesses.

  7. The report did note that Arizona had some of the nation’s highest NAEP gains between 2003 and 2015. But that was one of the few bright spots in the report, which also weighed school finances, chances for student success and K-12 achievement for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

    Arizona adjusted per pupil expenditures of $7,620 in 2013 ranked 50th, topping only Utah, which spent $6,980 per pupil, according to the report.


  8. Alternative facts?

  9. That’s nice, but as a teacher who left Arizona and is now teaching in a different state, I can tell you students here don’t make as large “gains” because they already have consistently been more successful on the tests that measure this progress in the first place. Another plus is that my school can actually afford textbooks, supplies, arts programs, etc. Also, it’s nice to be able to afford to raise my family as I’m actually making a living in my new position. When you fail your teachers, you are failing their students. Until Arizona fixes its systematic defunding of the education system, it will continue to see the mass exodus of its teachers – and with the present number of vacancies in Arizona schools right now, I don’t know how anyone can swallow the lie that the schools there are not failing.

  10. The biggest failure in public education is nobody oversees the funds being spent. The School districts waste money left and right. The no textbooks was a district policies to save money, make their own curriculum to fatten their pocket. Superintendents in public schools shouldnt be making high 6 figure salaries. Teachers earn on Average $47,000 in nine months of work, they also get retirement and health insurance. Bring closer to $60,000.
    Now lets talk a little about misappropriation of funds. As horrible stewardessses of our hard earned tax money. My daughter K-8 scool in the Peoria Unified district. One year demoed a perfectly good uncracked concrete parking lot, and poured the same exact parking lot with concrete. When I brought it up to my peticular superintendent assistant. He said he would get back to me. I then ask to speak to the actual superintendent and maybe he can answer this concearn. I was denied and a few days later the assistatant called me back and told me that the district has a use it or lose it policy. If we dont use monies for repairs we lose it the following year. I told him that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. If you don’t need that much money you don’t need it. How would you feel if I reached in your pocket and pulled out $580 every year and burned it. Cause thats what you are doung to me.
    And final complaint about AZ public education which I am sure it is the same in every state. Is far left teaching to our children. Their was A time when teachers taught love with love. Now they teach tolerance with intolerance. Just look around you their is a generation of young adults confused, no ambition in life, homeless and not understanding capitalism. Thinking somehow somebody else needs to support them. If they had learned about reality in school instead of fairtale world they would be part of the workforce now. K-8 schools across the country are teaching gun control instead of the constitution, transgenderism instead of biblical relationships and socialism instead of capitalism and Darwinism insted of Christianity. And you want our hard earned taxpayers money to fund the demise of the greatest country ever!!! Careful witb that you are letting far left people dictate right and wrong. Peole without morals should not be dictating right fro wrong. Mainly because they tend to force their beliefs down everyones throats. I am real close to starti g #Defund ed in AZ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *




Check Also

On the Money Home Improvements

Lack of oversight, spiraling costs hinder low-income housing tax credit program

Americans are increasingly unable to cope with the ever-increasing costs of housing. Rising costs in Arizona and across our nation should be of interest to policymakers. One program that’s being used is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.