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!
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.