Once again, we are reminded of how little we value public education. And once again, we are reminded how state leaders think average schools are good enough.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that per-pupil spending in Arizona in 2010 was among the lowest in the nation.

At $7,848 per student, Arizona pales in comparison to the national average of $10,615 per pupil, and ranks above only Idaho and Utah. The report also examined classroom spending based on personal income. At $40.55 per $1,000 of personal income, Arizona still was a bottom feeder, ranking ahead of only Tennessee, Florida and the District of Columbia.

The state has drastically cut education funding in recent years to balance the budget, although it restored $177 million in funding for public schools this year as revenues improved.

State schools superintendent John Huppenthal appears to be OK with our bottom-rung status. After all, we are actually slightly above average in performance, he said. And since we spend next-to-nothing on students, that really means we are excellent.

"Contrary to popular perception, our education system is slightly above the national average," he told Capitol Media Services' Howard Fischer. "When you have our cost equation, it means we run a much, much more cost-effective school system than any other state in the nation."

Talk about grade inflation.

Slightly above average.

Huppenthal's comments bring to mind similar comments a year ago from former state Sen. President Russell Pearce.

After the former CEO of Intel Corp. said companies with quality jobs won't come to Arizona if our schools are crummy, Pearce mounted a vigorous defense: "We're probably running in the middle, in the average," he said.

Average.

Anyway, it's hard to know where Huppenthal got his impression that Arizona schools are "slightly above the national average."

Huppenthal acknowledged to Fischer that last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the state lags the national averages in math, reading, science and writing. Fourth- and eighth-graders were tested.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, made the familiar argument that per-pupil spending doesn't mean much.

"If per-pupil funding were the most important factor, parents would be rushing to send their children to school in Newark, N.J., and Washington D.C.," he said. "They have the highest per-pupil funding in the nation. But they also have the worst performance."

This type of statement misses the point. It is true that Washington, D.C., and New Jersey have much higher per-pupil spending - $18,667 and $16,841, respectively - than Arizona. But so do Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Wyoming. Of those states, Massachusetts spent the least per pupil at $14,350.

Even such "red" states as Indiana ($9,611), Kansas ($9,715), Montana ($10,497), Nebraska ($10,734), North Dakota ($10,991) and South Carolina ($9,143) spent significantly more per pupil than Arizona in 2010. We could go on - this is what happens when you rank near the bottom - but you get it.

Average, slightly above average, and certainly, below average is not good enough. If the state's education system is as cost-effective as Huppenthal and Kavanagh suggest, then fund it appropriately and see just how excellent our schools can be.

When it comes to supporting education, Arizona gets an F.

Arizona Daily Star