John Huppenthal

John Huppenthal, the state's superintendent of public instruction, explains Friday the training available -- but not mandated -- for public schools to deal with threats of violence like the incident in Connecticut. Huppenthal said it's up to parents to ask school officials if they've gone through the program. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

Education administrators from the East Valley and the state highlighted their success and the challenges they face in their efforts to improve Arizona’s test scores during an event hosted by the Chandler Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

At the Chandler Chamber Education Forum at SoHo 63 on Aug. 28, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, Kyrene School District Superintendent Dr. David Schauer, Tempe Union High School Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Baca and Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Camille Casteel spoke about some of the accomplishments they’ve made and problems they’ve faced in recent years. Joining them was Learning Center Public Schools Superintendent of Schools Kristofer Sippel, who focused on charter schools in Arizona.

For the public schools, Huppenthal said while Arizona’s education reputation isn’t great — Education Week ranked Arizona 44th in its Quality Counts Report in January — there are certain areas where the state’s schools succeed when compared to other states on an “apples to apples” basis. He said Arizona, for example, ranks eighth in the nation in African American graduation rate, 15th in lower socioeconomic student graduation rate and 18th in that category for Caucasians. The state as a whole had just south of 77 percent of the Class of 2012 graduate, although that figure is below the national average of 78.2 percent in the most recent report by the U.S. Department of Education that used data from the 2010 graduating class.

An issue the state has is the graduation rate for Native American students, which was at about 65 percent in 2012. Huppenthal said the numbers place Arizona close to dead last in the nation, and he added the graduation rate for Native American students has been an issue for Arizona for many years.

“That has been one of the enduring tragedies in Arizona,” he said.

On the whole, Huppenthal said certain data sets have Arizona ranked 20th in the nation, in education although he said the state’s placement could be as high as 14th.

“It’s nowhere near 50th, but it’s nowhere near acceptable,” he said. “Our goal should be No. 1 and No. 1 by a chunk.”

Another plus he mentioned was the juvenile arrest rate, which he said has “dropped like a rock” in recent years.

The positives come in spite of a slew of issues he and the local superintendents say have proven problematic for the state’s education system, starting with a severe budget crunch in recent years. Data presented during the chamber event by the superintendents indicates the state had the highest decrease in the country in student spending — 24.8 percent — between 2008 and 2013, and was fourth in a drop in per-student spending. Castille added the state has cut a total of $1 billion in funding to all schools in Arizona during that time period.

As a result of the repeated cuts, Castille said the Kyrene, Tempe Union and Chandler schools have lost highly qualified teachers, closed schools, made cuts to programs like music, physical education and the arts, and increased class sizes.

“We don’t mean to sound defensive; it is what it is,” she said, “it keeps me up at night what we could do with additional funding for each child.”

Perceived myths about the public system

Other issues mentioned by the public school superintendents centered on perceived myths about the public system, among them a perceived increase in property taxes — Baca said local property taxes have decreased since 2008 — high administration spending, which he said is the lowest per pupil according to a 2012 US Census report, and a lack of oversight.

For the lattermost, Castille said the state Legislature has implemented several bills to track school finances and success in recent years, and said districts have their finances audited on a regular basis.

“I’d say we have more audits than any other business besides maybe the banks,” she said.

Another issue mentioned by Huppenthal is a change in Arizona’s demographics, as he said a majority of the state’s student population consists of minority students.

“Our schools have to do better and better just to stay equal, and that won’t be easy,” he said.

There are also challenges coming up in all three mentioned besides demographics, led by a shift to Common Core standards — ones that tie closer to national standards than Arizona’s current ones — and a change in state testing that will occur in the 2014-15 school year. During the next school year, Arizona schools will drop the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, exam and employ the PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — test to gauge student achievement.

The new test is expected to be more difficult for students, but Huppenthal said the Common Core standards can help students succeed as they mature by providing a grounding in basic skills like multiplication and division. Huppenthal, who supports the standards, added his goal is to prove the standards “are not the spawn of Satan.”

“They didn’t become controversial until President Obama got behind them,” he said.

Sippel, who oversees three charter campuses in Gilbert and Chandler that makeup the SanTan Learning Center, outlined general facts about charter schools so he could dispel a separate set of myths about the education alternative. He emphasized that charters schools offer free education and provide programs for special needs students and gifted students like public schools, but said they differ from public schools in state funding and the organization that oversees them.

According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, the state has 535 charter schools that serve more than 1450,000, which represents an exponential growth given the first charter opened in Arizona in 1995.

“I think that was really the catalyst for charter schools to provide that choice for parents in Arizona,” Sippel said.

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