Arizona students’ learning loss could cost state’s economy billions, report says

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of American families saw their children’s learning disrupted. Some schools shut down for prolonged periods of time, others adopted unique hybrid models, while others transitioned to a fully digital education experience. No matter these innovations, parents, educators, and researchers began to make out a troubling trend: student learning was taking a hit. 

This intuition is now being vindicated by the latest data from NAEP, which is often referred to as the nation’s report card and is “the only standardized, long-term measure of student academic learning for the nation.” 

The 2022 NAEP scores, the results of the first standardized assessments taken by students after the pandemic, show that two decades of progress in reading and math scores were wiped out.

New research from the Common Sense Institute of Arizona, a think tank committed to growth and market economics, dove into how learning loss will impact the state of Arizona in-particular. 

Learning loss will not only deprive students of knowledge and learning, but contribute negatively to the state’s growth, and human flourishing, they say. 

Their predictions are startling: CSI Arizona estimates that learning loss will cost Arizona up to $5.8 billion in economic output over the next decade. Additionally, the report’s authors project that the state will have 18,000 fewer high school graduates, and 32,000 fewer college graduates by 2032.

The report’s authors argue that the learning loss suffered during the pandemic will have ripple effects throughout the state, and in this “lost generation” of students’ lives.

Education positively affects a range of variables in a person’s life, including but not limited to employment, income level, and likelihood of being arrested or incarcerated. 

  • The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree is 2.2%, in contrast to an unemployment rate of 3.9% for those with only a high school diploma. 
  • Americans with a bachelor’s degree maintain an average household income of $105,000 compared to $46,800 for those who only graduated high school. 
  • In general, probability of criminality is significantly higher for men without a High School Diploma than for any other social demographics.

The report shows that Arizona could see at least 1,500 more violent crimes by 2032 as a result of learning loss. “CSI estimates the increase in criminality due to pandemic-era learning loss would cost Arizonans between $38.1 and $175.1 million annually, or a cumulative $456 million to $2.1 billion over the next 12 years.”

Katie Ratlief, the executive director of the institute, stressed the seriousness of the report’s findings, but also maintained hope. 

“But, here’s the good news: our analysis assumes this learning loss is permanent. And it doesn’t have to be,” she said. “The federal government provided American schools with more than $277 billion in one-time emergency support to help alleviate some of these recent losses, and over $4.5 billion of that has gone to Arizona’s public schools.”

Half that relief money remains unspent, says Ratlief. “If schools, parents, and policymakers are successful in addressing and reversing these trends, the impacts estimated here could be mitigated.” 

How might decisionmakers distribute these funds and make reforms in such a way that these negative effects are mitigated? 

Learning loss fomented by the pandemic may be precisely the turning point which prompts Arizona parents, educators, and lawmakers to work together to solve not only pandemic-related learning loss, but longer-standing issues facing the state’s education system.

Joe Pitts

Joe Pitts is a born and bred Arizonan who formerly served as the program director at the Arizona Chamber Foundation. He graduated Arizona State University's Barrett, the Honors College in 2023 with a B.S. in Management and concurrent B.S. in Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

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