The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable." ...  ... Mark Twain.

Commentary of the Day - November 15, 2005:  Borderline Stupidity.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

When we were relocating from New Jersey to Arizona almost two decades ago, our relatives told us all the reasons why moving was not a smart decision.

"No doctors," they said.

"Mayo Clinic," I replied.

"Too dry," they said.

"Seven days of rain a year," I said to my cousin whose hair was beginning to frizz on that 98 degree, 98 percent humidity day so long ago.

"Too hot," they said.

"Air conditioning," I replied.

"Too hot," they said again, as if saying it twice would make it a better reason.

"Swimming pools and a year-round tan," I replied.

 "Horrible schools," they said, knowing where my Achilles heel was hidden.

"I taught in a horrible school," I replied, "Don't you remember when I ordered $5000 worth of new books and supplies for the next year, and all I got was a yard stick and a package of ditto masters?"

Despite the best attempts of our relatives at dissuasion, we moved.

For the most part, my sons, who received their entire K-12 education in Arizona, had good teachers; and, the curriculum usually was rigorous and challenging.  For example, the other night I asked my son why he was doing Greek homework since he is not taking a foreign language this year.  His reply: "Mom, it's calculus."  If standardized testing is a barometer, my children have done exceptionally well on these national tests, consistently scoring above the 90th percentile.  In fact, my younger son is presently deciding which college to attend next year, and part of his decision is being based on the size of the academic scholarships he has been offered from excellent universities in and out of Arizona.  From my perspective, Arizona's schools and teachers are not very different from those with whom I worked elsewhere.  Good genes and good parenting aside, my sons have thrived in the Arizona school system.

With that in mind, in a recent and highly publicized survey, Morgan Quitno Press named Vermont the "Smartest State" in its Education State Rankings for 2005-2006.  Vermont was followed by Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maine, all in the Northeast.  The losers ("losers" is the word used by CNN) were Arizona -- in last place, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, and California.  Four of these five are in the Southwest [1].

I am acutely aware that Arizona has its share of problems, but I visited the Morgan Quitno Press web site because, as a person who never takes surveys at their face value, I needed to see just how their rankings were determined.  If someone is going to call my state the dumbest, I wanted to know how this was decided.

A few years ago when Florida was listed by Morgan Quitno Press in forty-seventh place, columnist/humorist Dave Barry wanted to know why Florida was not  number 50.  This was in the days of chads and Al Gore, and as a Florida resident, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Mr. Barry had the same questions as I did.

For the record, I was not requesting a change in ranking; I simply wanted to know how it was determined that Arizona was the dumbest state in the USA.

Morgan Quitno Press - "Reliable Rankings for 16 Years."

As explanation, Morgan Quitno Press of Lawrence, Kansas (not far, I am told, from where Dorothy and Toto lifted off to find the ruby slippers and flying monkeys) produces annual announcements that designate our country's:

Safest City - Newton, Massachusetts

Most Dangerous City - Camden, New Jersey

Smartest State - Massachusetts in 2004 (before Vermont got the honors this year)

Most Improved State - New Hampshire

Most Livable State - New Hampshire (before the floods, I assume)

Healthiest State - Vermont

Safest State - North Dakota

Most Dangerous State Nevada (home of the one-armed bandito!)

Each designation was based on data collected by Morgan Quitno Press and released in print or on CD "for as little as $3.49 each."  For their "Smartest State" designation, they calculated winners and losers using a complicated procedure based on 21 factors that were divided into positive and negative characteristics. "Rates for each of the 21 factors were processed through a formula that measures how a state compares to the national average for a given category.  The positive and negative nature of each factor was taken into account as part of the formula.  Once these computations were made, the factors then were assigned equal weights.  These weighted scores then were added together to determine a state's final score."  Among the characteristics weighed were:

Graduation rates

Dropout rates

Student-teacher ratio

Class size

Teacher salary

Expenditures for instruction

Student achievement


Positive outcomes

Strong student-teacher relationships

School district efficiency [2]

The credentials of the founders of Morgan Quitno Press are impressive.  They have "years of experience in and out of government and in working with data."  Scott Morgan, as an example, was Staff Counsel on a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee in the 1980's, served as Chief Counsel to Senator Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, served as Chief Counsel to the Kansas Governor, and, after one year in private law practice in Kansas City, has devoted all of his time to Morgan Quitno Press [3].

I am not looking to make waves, at least not the tsunami type.  However, I do have some objections with their findings.  Using numbers and statistics is a starting place, but ignoring key variables/handicaps leads to erroneous conclusions.  Arizona still may be the dumbest state, but by omitting the following information, these rankings hold no weight, despite what they say on the news: "ARIZONA IS THE DUMBEST STATE DETAILS AT 6 PM HECK, THEY DON'T EVEN SET BACK THEIR CLOCKS!"

Here are some facts that Morgan Quitno Press did not include in their analysis:

FACT #1: In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled (Plyler v. Doe) that states and school districts cannot deny free public education to illegal alien children residing in the United States [4].

The international border between Mexico and the United States extends about 2000 miles along the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  There are approximately 350 million legal border crossings every year [5]; and, it is estimated that  illegal crossings account for over one million people a year.  (As a point of reference, the length of this border is approximately the same distance as it is from Phoenix, Arizona (#50) to Montpelier, Vermont (#1).)  Currently, the government has not yet estimated the costs of educating the children of recent legal and illegal immigrants, but it is generally accepted that the immigrant population is growing, and that the undocumented component is significant.  This directly affects local and state education budgets, which have not been able to keep up with increases in enrollment and classroom overcrowding caused by this inflow.

According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR): "The total K-12 school expenditure for illegal immigrants costs the states nearly $12 billion annually, and when the children born here to illegal aliens are added, the costs more than double to $28.6 billion.  This enormous expenditure of the taxpayers' contributions does not represent the total costs. Special program for non-English speakers are an additional fiscal burden as well as a potential hindrance to the overall learning environment.  A recent study found that dual language programs represent an additional expense of $290 to $879 per pupil depending on the size of the class.  In addition, because these children of illegal aliens come from families that are most often living in poverty, there is also a major expenditure for them on supplemental feeding programs in the schools [6]."

According to  Don Collins, a member of FAIR's board of directors, "The average native-born-headed household in Arizona now bears more than $700 a year in additional costs to provide education to illegal aliens and their children, an estimated $810 million a year."  This number does not include the burden of paying for health care for illegal immigrants that threatens to bankrupt many Arizona hospitals and clinics.  Incarcerating illegal aliens costs Arizona taxpayers an additional $80 million annually [7]."

Other Southwestern states have similar burdens.  In fact, Arizona isn't even at the top of the list for estimated costs of educating illegal alien students and U.S.-born children of illegal aliens - California leads at 15%, and Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas follow with 10% - but it is an expensive handicap, nonetheless, and it affects school budgets, school spending, and overall outcomes.

FACT #2: The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nationally, Native American students have a dropout rate of 35.5%.  This is about twice the national average and the highest dropout rate of any United States ethnic or racial group.  Among minority populations in Arizona, Native American students have the highest dropout rates [8].

According to the United States Census Bureau, Vermont has a population of 621,394 of which 24.2% are under 18 years old.  That is approximately 150,000.  Of that, 0.4%  are American Indian or Alaskan Native. TRANSLATION: There are approximately 600 American Indians or Alaskan Native under the age of 18 in Vermont.

Arizona has a population of 5,743,834 (more than nine times that of Vermont) with 26.6% under the age of 18.  That is approximately 1.5 million people.  Of that, 5% are either American Indian or Alaskan Native. TRANSLATION: There are approximately 75,000 American Indians or Alaskan Natives under the age of 18 in Arizona.

In my neck of the reservation, using this category to rate the quality of education in a state that has 600 students in a cultural group known for its high dropout rate to one with 75,000 in this same cultural group is like comparing dollars to wampum.  In addressing the problem of dropout rates, it is inevitable that Arizona's expenditures will outweigh that of Vermont.  When the money for this comes from education coffers, something somewhere else will be cut; it is an expensive handicap and one that affects the total budget significantly.

FACT #3: According to the United States Census Bureau, 25.9% of Arizona's population speak a language other than English in the home, whereas Vermont has 5.9% of its population speaking a language other than English at home.  In Arizona, there are 75% more of a much larger population base not speaking English in their homes.  Being from the smartest state or Kansas is not a prerequisite for seeing how problematic this may be to a state's overall educational system.

FACT #4: A critical detail that accentuates the burden of education in Arizona, once again, can be obtained from the United States Census Bureau.  Since 1990, the population of the United States increased by 13.1%.  Vermont's population, again not to pick on Vermont but to point out the absurdity of these rankings, increased 8.2%.  Arizona's population increased 40%.  With increased population comes the burden of educating the children.  Thus, add to this picture overcrowded older schools, new schools with limited budgets and lack of supplies, and all the other variables which go with new school start-ups.  If you draw a giant dollar sign, that should help describe the situation in Arizona.

A forty percent increase in population in fifteen years is hugely significant, and has to be factored into the equation.

Doth the Lady Protest Too Much?  She Dothn't.

It could very well be true that Arizona is the dumbest state, but in making a list, it is misleading not to include the above data.  Though Morgan Quitno Press comes up with some valid assertions, they are based on their limited criteria, which omit handicaps some states have.

The question about smartest and dumbest has to include what states are doing about their educational problems (taking into consideration that all states have unique situations), and the effectiveness of these programs. The question about smartest and dumbest also must include comparable finances backing these programs.

Regardless of the label, Arizona is working hard at improving.

In order to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state report cards must be made available to all parents. I received my copy of this report card last week from Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne. Within the brochure, results of the AIMS test were listed. AIMS is Arizona's Instrument to Measurement Standards (AIMS), a test which provides educators and the public with valuable information regarding the progress of Arizona's students toward mastering reading, writing, and mathematics standards. Within the report card brochure, these were detailed by race and ethnic group. Though there were different results between races and ethnic groups, the fact was clear that each group was surpassing the AMO (Annual (federally mandated) Measurable Objectives) and prior years [9].  Vermont's report card, obviously also required by No Child Left Behind, had similar results but on a much smaller scale [10].

Arizona's inherent problems will not disappear, but when judging a state as a whole, if this diversity is not accounted for, then the outcome is flawed and irrelevant.











©2005 Felice Prager.
Felice Prager is a freelance writer and former English teacher from Arizona.

The IP comments: Felice is quite correct to note that the Quitno Press rankings are seriously flawed.  Comparing a state like Vermont with Arizona is like comparing apples and oranges.  The better comparison would be between states with similar problems.  For example, comparisons between states with large immigrant populations would make more sense, as would comparisons between states with large recent population increases.  One other point that needs to be made is that most undocumented immigrants work and pay taxes.  By some estimates the amount of taxes that they pay roughly balances the cost of the public services that they use.  However, because they bulk of their tax payments go to the federal government in the form of payroll and income taxes, little of that money comes back to the state and local governments to pay for the services that they use most frequently.  At the same time, most of these undocumented immigrants never collect the Social Security or Medicare benefits that they have paid for.  Thus, there is a strong argument for the federal government to reimburse state and local governments for the educational and health care expenditures made for undocumented immigrants -- particularly, since policing the borders is a federal responsibility.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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