A year ago, I was a panelist at a forum discussing education in Arizona. Sitting next to me was Ann-Eve Pedersen, the president of the Arizona Education Network. When she went to grade school in Arizona in the 1970s, Pedersen told the audience the state supported education and funded it adequately. We ranked in the middle of the country in per-student spending, not dead last like we are today.

I have no firsthand knowledge of Arizona’s education funding before 2003. I moved here eight years ago when I retired from teaching in the Portland, Ore., area. So I called Pedersen a few days ago to get more information.

“It’s true,” she told me, “our schools were well-funded back then. We had decent class sizes, enough pencils, paper and books. I look at my son’s school now, and he doesn’t have the resources I had.”

Republicans tell us they support education and say they were forced to make cuts to the education budget because of our faltering economy. So I decided to see if we really did fund our schools better in past decades as Pedersen said, and when our national educational standing began to slip.

I found, contrary to the Republicans’ spin, their disregard for the quality of education in this state began decades ago when our economy was booming. For the past 22 years, while Republicans were in control of the legislature, through economic good times and the current recession, our national standing in school funding and student achievement has plummeted.

Pedersen is right. Arizona was once quite generous with its K-12 funding. But no longer.

How generous were we? In 1964, Arizona spent 115 percent of the national average per student, even though our personal income was lower than the rest of the nation’s, according to a scholarly paper issued by Arizona State University. For the next 25 years, we hovered around the national average – a little higher one year, a little lower the next.

Then in 1989, our standing in per student spending began to plummet. By 1991, we were spending 80 percent of the national average. The downhill slide continued – 75 percent in 2000, 70 percent in 2003. The most recent figures we have, from 2009, put us at a shameful 58 percent of the national average in the amount we spent per child. The last two years of budget cuts have inevitably dragged us lower still.

Today, we’re dead last in the nation in per-student spending by a sizable margin. Is it any wonder we have the county’s largest class sizes as well?

The bottom line, of course, is student achievement, not what we spend or how many students we have in class. If our students are doing well, the rest doesn’t really matter. So let’s look at the numbers.

Republican Senate President Russell Pearce claims our students are doing pretty well. He said, “We’re probably running in the middle, in the average.” Like so many of the “facts and figures” that come out of Pearce’s mouth, this one has no basis in reality.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the only standardized test that reliably compares student achievement from state to state, Arizona’s scores are deplorable. Our fourth-graders are 47th in the nation in reading and 44th in math. Our eighth-graders do slightly better, at 43rd in reading and 37th in math.

And no, Sen. Pearce, blaming the scores on the large numbers of Hispanics in the state, as you like to do, doesn’t work. Our children score lower than children across the country even when you take parents’ income, education and ethnicity into account. No matter how you look at the figures, the truth is, we’re failing our children.

“Adults are asking children to make sacrifices the adults should be making,” Pedersen told me when we talked. We’re approaching our centennial year, she continued, adding that it took us a hundred years to build this state, and our current Republican leaders are doing everything they can to destroy what we’ve built.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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