This is an article about education reform in Arizona. It contains opinions on complex issues, profound sociological theories, colorful political bickering and, most impressive, statistics. For example, literacy researchers claim that less than 30 percent of Americans are capable of reading a long newspaper feature story to its completion.

So for the vast majority of readers about to drop out, here is a brief summary:
Arizona education needs reforming.
Reformers have been working on it for a while.
Reform is complicated.
The reformers have tried hard, but so far have failed.

The reformers are getting their ducks lined up, though, and it seems like something is about to pop.

All of you in the 31st percentile and below can go now.
@body:Those of you remaining probably will not be pleased to learn that most of the major ideas in this article don't directly concern you. If you've read this far, someone has a statistic somewhere that shows that your kids--if you have kids--will survive, if not thrive, in any kind of school, be it public, private or fish. That's just the kind of person you are. Literate. Knowledgeable and concerned about the lives of your offspring. Employed. Not incarcerated.

But this article is about public schools in Arizona, which have problems that only marginally affect you 30 percenters who read long newspaper stories--and who also likely encourage your kids to read, write, learn mathematics and play the clarinet.

It's about 220 districts, 711,899 schoolkids and $3 billion in tax money, more or less. It's about business executives who can't get good workers, blockhead lawmakers and craven politicking. It's about a massive school-reform movement that started five years ago that has achieved, essentially, nothing.

But mostly, it's about a huge-and-growing-huger population of unlucky kids whose background all but dooms them to failure in school and later life, and the massive task most public schools have in accommodating them.

They are called "at risk" students, and they start school unprepared to accept their taxpayer-supported education. Yet the law says they must be educated, so they are thrust into America's most democratic institution, public school.

Some don't speak English, some come from broken or abusive homes, some have mental disorders caused by poor nutrition. Many lack the skills necessary to participate in the group learning experience. These students start kindergarten trailing other students, and rarely catch up. "They come to school totally lacking basic vocabulary, with no socialization skills," says one Arizona grade-school administrator. "They need to be exposed to education and the values that education can promote much earlier."

En route to their exit from school--and some do beat the odds and make it to graduation--they drain resources and teacher time while robbing average and gifted students of both.

For obvious reasons, educators are skittish about labeling kids at-risk. Because the definition of at-risk is so broad, it's almost impossible to put an exact number or a percentage on the at-risk kids in Arizona schools. But you can come close by using poverty as a proxy.

According to the state Department of Education, almost 250,000 of the state's schoolkids participate in federal reduced-fee and free-meal programs. Using family income, the feds draw a line. Kids from families below the line are in the program. Not all eligible kids participate--at higher grades, peer pressure keeps some students away from the poverty program--and there are plenty of rich kids who are at-risk, but to move the discussion along, poverty is the best place to begin.

And for starters, the 1990 census shows that Arizona had the nation's second-greatest per capita growth of low-income kids in school since 1980, trailing only Wyoming.

There will be talk of education "excellence" in this story, dreamy, futuristic descriptions of computer learning and stirring yak about how publicly educated American workers can't compete with foreigners. But the big story is the at-risk kids, and our inability to do much for them.

@body:The effort to do something for them has brought Arizona education to a crossroads. Legislation has been mapped out that could bring significant school reform to the state, and the latest word from the Arizona State Capitol is that the state legislature probably will be called into special session late this summer to consider a roster of systemic changes in education. The journey to this point started five years ago, when Arizona's larger employers latched onto nationwide concerns about intellectual competence of the American work force. Since the early 1980s, businesses have been saying that public schools produce a poor product, a flaw that has crippled America in the international marketplace. The nature of industry has changed rapidly, schools have not kept up and competitors (Japan, Germany, et cetera) have pounded American business.

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Dave Walker