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State fares poorly in federal report on disparities in nation’s schools

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WASHINGTON – Arizona’s public schools do not fare well when it comes to access to experienced and certified teachers or to advanced math and science classes, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Those were just two of many areas in the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection report where Arizona ranked poorly compared to other states.

The report for the 2011-2012 school year highlights the “disparity in opportunity” in America’s schools, said Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who jointly presented the data at a Washington, D.C., elementary school Friday.

“The Civil Rights Data Collection paints a stark portrait of educational inequality in America,” Duncan said.

He said the latest data was a “landmark study” because it includes all public schools across the country – “not projections, not estimates.” But those numbers were generally not good for Arizona.

The state did rank in the middle of the pack in some areas, including out-of-school suspensions, representation of disabled students in gifted-and-talented programs and progress of kindergarten students.

But Arizona landed in the bottom five for high schools with access to school counselors and for percentage of school districts operating preschool programs, among other findings in the report.

Chris Kotterman, deputy director of government relations for the Arizona Department of Education, said he thinks the data “accurately portrays some of the challenges we face in the state.”

Kotterman, pointing to cuts in the education budget that happened “repeatedly” during the recession, said those funding levels need to be restored “or we’ll continue to see numbers like this.”

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said Arizona is getting exactly what it pays for.

“There are thousands and thousands of dedicated, professional educators in our classrooms doing the best they can for our kids,” he said. “But we are so dramatically under-resourced that school improvement has an anchor around its neck.”

While he had not thoroughly explored the data, Ogle said he believes that Arizona’s relatively high number of first-year or uncertified teachers may be driven by the number of charter schools in the state.

Arizona landed in the top three – alongside Alaska and the District of Columbia – for percentage of students in schools where first-year teachers made up more than 20 percent of the faculty, according to DOE numbers. Arizona was in the top eight states for percentage of students in schools with more than 20 percent of teachers not yet certified.

Less than 30 percent of Arizona’s public school districts offered preschool programs, placing the state in the bottom five. Additionally, less than two-thirds of Arizona high schools had access to school counselors, also landing the state in the bottom five.

The report also said half of Arizona high schools offered physics and less than two-thirds offered chemistry, landing the state in the bottom 10 states. Only 38 percent of high schools offered calculus, placing Arizona ahead of just five states.

“There’s a lot of emphasis placed on dollars,” Kotterman said of the areas measured in the civil rights report. “When you look at numbers like this, you expect Arizona to be near the bottom.”

By comparison, he said, Arizona is slightly above the national average on student achievement rankings.

“(Arizona schools) are doing a phenomenal job with the amount we’re giving them,” Kotterman said.

The Civil Rights Data Collection also included rankings for school discipline. Arizona schools were near to the national average for out-of-school suspensions by both gender and race.

The state was also in line with the nation for suspension rates for disabled students, who were suspended at twice the rate of other students. Both the state and nation had disproportionately high numbers of disabled students subject to physical restraint.

“The data shows us that we still have a long way to go,” Holder said Friday. “Every data point represents a life that was impacted.”