Not nearly at the bottom

Gloom-and-doom numbers banied about on our schools distort reality
East Valley Tribune
Monday, March 31, 2003

There is a lot of misinformation being advanced about education funding through the misuse of statistics. I would like to straighten out a few things about what’s really been done to fund our schools and where Arizona ranks nationally in meaningful categories.

The public is constantly being bombarded with the assertions that the legislature has failed to adequately fund public education over the years and that Arizona is near the bottom nationally in support for education. The truth is that Arizona has put dollars into education, and in meaningful categories, our state ranks fairly well.

Since 1994, the state has increased funding to education for day-to-day operations by 25 percent above population growth and inflation, from $1.6 billion to over $3 billion in 2003. OK, education funding has gone up every year. So what about those statistics we keep hearing, and more importantly, what about the effectiveness of our public schools?

We always hear that Arizona ranks 47 th or 48 th nationally in education funding. This very popular number is very much misused, considering (based on 2000-01 information from the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the American Federation of Teachers, Arizona Tax Research Association and the National Center for Education Statistics) that Arizona actually ranks:

• First in the average salary of instructional staff on a cost of living basis, which includes the salaries of teachers, principals, counselors, librarians, aides, etc.

• First in dollars spent for capital improvements per pupil.

• 10th in dollars spent for capital improvements.

• 21st in total dollars spent on K-12.

• 23rd in dollars spent for administration.

• 24th in dollars spent on current operating expenses.

• 25th in average teacher’s salary, taking into account the cost of living.

Further, Arizona ranked 18 th for academic achievement of its students, according to the bipartisan American Legislative Exchange Council.

So what is that misused number that puts Arizona near the national basement? It is a figure that divides dollars spent for day-to-day operations by the number of pupils in public schools. But this calculation looks at education spending in a vacuum. The "per pupil" comparisons are meaningless and misleading because while other states may purport to spend more per pupil, the calculation does not take into account either cost of living adjustments or uniformity as to which funding categories go into the calculation from state to state (for example, Arizona is first in capital expenditures per pupil, but those dollars are not used in the "popular" per pupil calculations). Nor does it reflect the actual investment of dollars to the classroom from school district to school district or state to state, or actual student achievement.

In all key categories that actually compare "apples to apples," Arizona ranks in the upper half nationally. Even in total dollars spent on K-12, not taking population into account, Arizona ranks 21 st. The more legitimate issue is not so much the amount we are spending as where it is going. An awful lot clearly goes to school construction and administration at a time when maximizing dollars to the classroom should be the primary focus.

With constitutional responsibility for balancing the state’s budget resting with the Legislature, this time of deficit crisis demands that we direct funds to our core priorities of education, health care and public safety. Inextricably connected to this effort is that the use of available dollars be as efficient and effective as possible within those priorities. For education this means districts concentrating money on teachers and classroom supplies.

We must also keep in mind that overall dollars are finite, and that we can’t simply borrow and spend our way to the place Gov. Napolitano’s 2004 budget would lead us — a billion-dollar plus tax increase in 2005 that would devastate hard-working families and hamper a struggling economic recovery. It would also be a disaster for our education system. Oregon recently went down this road. A $725 million tax hike was soundly rejected by voters, resulting in a real $95 million cut to K-12 funding and the layoffs or attrition of 600 public school teachers!

We must not be seduced into spending money that we don’t have based upon numbers that misrepresent both the level of commitment this state has exhibited to fund education and the effectiveness of that funding. Should we put as much money as possible into our schools Of course! That’s why even just the initial proposal from the appropriations chairman increases funding to education by $195 million! Even as to this, the analyses are on-going, but let’s not also forget that the governor controls billions of federal dollars that, contrary to her repeated campaign promises, she refuses to put on the table for education and other priorities.

Should we strive to rank ever higher in meaningful categories? Of course! But we must stop viewing the status of our education system, and its funding, through a skewed perspective that prevents us from focusing on the real issues of being accountable locally for directing dollars to the classroom and for the state to responsibly address Arizona’s budget deficit.

Let’s not be misled down the path to an Oregon-like disaster for our schools and our great state.

State Sen. Marilyn Jarrett (R-Mesa) is the Senate majority whip and can be reached at mjarrett@