Dropout rate a reflection of poor state funding, say educators

A recently concluded federal study, which states Arizona is last in the country at graduating high school seniors, comes as no surprise to local school officials who cite poor school funding as part of the problem.

State figures indicate Arizona lags about $1,500 behind the national average in dollars spent per student annually.

"The aspect of the average state spending per student we've always known has been low," Mohave County Superintendent of Schools Mike File said.

"The alternative of operating alternative schools is costly.

You don't routinely have them because children don't come to school, so you may run them four or five hours per day and use grant funding to keep them open because you only get partial state aid."

Between October 1998 and October 2000, 73.5 percent of Arizonans aged 18 to 24 had finished high school or earned an equivalent credential, down 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

The national average for graduation is 85.7 percent.

The annual study is conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, which surveys state education departments and researches U.S.

census data in compiling the report.

Its findings were listed in an Associated Press story out of Phoenix last week.

Arizona finished 4 percentage points behind neighboring Nevada and 6 points behind Texas, which ranked just above Arizona.

Topping the list were Maine and North Dakota, where 94 percent of young adults have high school diplomas.

Phoenix Union High School District runs one of the more successful dropout prevention programs in the state.

The program has decreased the dropout rate from nearly 18 percent to 8.6 percent over the last six years, but it costs more than $3 million per year.

"Those are the first figures I've seen on Phoenix Union, but we've paralleled their success over the years," Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Mike Ford said.

"We haven't run figures on how much our alternative programs cost because we don't look at it in terms of spending the money.

By keeping students in school we increase our revenues (through average daily membership reimbursement from the state), so it's not a question of what it costs but what it generates."

There are four dropout prevention programs in the KUSD.

They include PASS (Positive Alternatives for Student Success), PALS (Positive Alternative to Learning Styles), an alternative program at Palo Christi Elementary and the I-Care program, which is for students who are not successful or disruptive in the regular classroom environment, Ford said.

He said it is those programs and dedication of staff in them that has helped reduce the dropout rate at Kingman High School from nearly 19 percent in 1990 to 7.8 percent last year.

Josue Gonzalez, a professor at Arizona State University, said part of the explanation for the state's high dropout rate is that education is funded "abysmally poor."

File and Ford agreed, stating education funding in Arizona is not a high priority.

File is a member of the state Board of Education.

He was asked if funding is likely to increase in the near future.

"I wish I could say yes but everybody is on the chopping block for funding," File said.

"I just got a copy of the attorney general's report on (Proposition) 301 funds and in her opinion those are fund that can't be touched as they were voted on.

But I also understand that the state Legislature will go after school facilities funding, which is the half-cent sales tax for new building construction.

The legislature wants to use it to balance the budget."