Ducey's Education Down Payment, and What We Really Need

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Gov. Ducey wants to add something like $300 million a year to K-12 funding, pending approval from voters. For the moment, let's forget about all the problems involved in using the students' trust fund money to cover the tab and adding all kinds of triggers which could mean the money would stop in a few years. Let's just look at that number, $300 million a year.

That sounds like a lot of money to put into our schools, $300 million. The first thing to remember is, it's not new money. It's the amount the legislature took away from our schools in 2009. That's what the courts say we need to bring us back to where we were before the 2008 recession—and it's really only 70 percent, not the whole amount. But still, $300 million. Sounds like a lot of money. Unfortunately, in terms of what we spend per student on K-12 education compared to other states, it's not much at all.

Let me explain Arizona's education funding situation in a way that even an English teacher like me can understand.

Arizona has a million students in K-12 public schools, give or take. A million students. So if the lege says, "Here's a million dollar education present kids, enjoy!" that means each student gets a crisp, new dollar bill. "Buy yourself a dollar meal at McDonalds, kid, you deserve it. If you want fries or a drink with that, you're on your own."

That's what a million dollars is worth when it's spread out over all our public school students. That's our starting point. Each million equals one dollar per student.

So, Ducey's $300 million proposal amounts to $300 per student. As a friend of mine used to say, that's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but when schools need to replace aging educational materials and provide materials they've had to cut, fix their under-maintained buildings and buses, lower class size and raise teacher salaries, $300 per student doesn't stretch very far.

So what do we need? What's a reasonable figure that would help Arizona dig itself out of its education underfunding, give students the resources they need and give teachers the salaries they deserve, enough to keep them from fleeing the profession?

Let's look at what other states spend per student to see what they think a state should spend on education. I'm using 2013 U.S. Census figures because if I used the National Education Association figures, some people might discount them as being biased. In fact, the two sets of figures are similar in the general picture they create though they vary in some of the particulars. Arizona comes out a little worse compared to other states in the NEA calculations than in the census figures, but not a whole lot worse.

According to the census figures, Arizona spends, in round numbers, $7,200 per student. That's more than Utah and Idaho but less than everyone else, putting us 49th in the country (including Washington, D.C.). Here's what the next four states spend:
Oklahoma: $7,700
Mississippi: $8,100
Tennessee: $8,200
Texas: $8,300
Let's say our goal is to move up one spot and be tied for 48th place with Oklahoma. That means spending $500 more per student, which would mean a funding increase of $500 million a year. (Remember, a dollar per student is a million dollars a year.) To join Mississippi, we need to add $900 per year, or $900 million. To level with the next two states, it would mean adding a billion or more to our yearly K-12 spending.

The national average is $10,700 per student. To hit that lofty mark would cost us $3.5 billion a year. That's what Ducey proposes to add to our education spending over ten years, so we'd have to spend ten times what Ducey is suggesting. It's not going to happen, obviously, but it gives an idea of how low our spending is compared to other states.

What if we set a modest goal, to tie with Tennessee for 46th place? That would cost a billion more a year, three times what Ducey has been congratulating himself for adding (which, it can't be said too often, is 70 percent of what the courts say the state owes the schools to satisfy what the voters demanded in 2000). Right now, even if we dip into state land trust money to cover part of the billion dollars, we don't have enough in the state surplus to cover the rest. And if Ducey gets his beloved tax cuts—"Tax cuts now, tax cuts tomorrow, tax cuts forever!"—raising Arizona's per student spending a notch or two won't even be a pipe dream.

Phoenix, we have a problem.

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