Instructional Spending Made Simple

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It's coming up on state budget time, and the big national money-in-education story is, Arizona is one of twelve states spending less per student now than they did before the 2008 recession— and we know Arizona was hardly generous with its schools before that. But that story makes it sound like the legislature needs to put a whole lot more money into schools, and that's not something they're about to do.

So it's time to revive the blame-the-schools story about how unwisely Arizona districts spend their education dollars. It's a great way to justify under-funding schools. Nothing says "wasteful spending" like a low percentage of funding going into the classroom.

According to an article that came out last week, Arizona schools put 54 percent of their budgets into instruction. The national average is 60.4 percent.



Shame on Arizona schools! Shame! Shame!

Or maybe not. Let's take a look at those same numbers in a different, but not entirely different, situation.



A family of four has an income of $26,000. It spends $1,000 a month on housing, or $12,000 a year. The remaining $14,000 goes for general family expenses. Housing eats up 46 percent of their income. That leaves 54 percent for family expenses.

Another family of four lives next door and also spends $12,000 a year on housing. However, their income is $30,400, meaning they have $18,400 to spend on general family expenses. For this family, housing only takes up 40 percent of their income, which means they have 60 percent left for family expenses.

I guess you could say the second family makes wise use of its money because it spends 60 percent on food, clothing, transportation, entertainment and other miscellaneous expenses. Using the same logic, I suppose you could blame the first family for budgeting too little on general family expenses.

But you would be missing the point. The point is, both spend the same amount on housing. The difference is, the second family has a bigger pot of money to dip into, so it has more left over for everything else. The other family has to make do on far less.

Now, let's take what we've learned from the example back to the education arena.

According to the article, Arizona schools receive about $8,300 per student. The national average is $11,800 per student. The difference is a whopping $3,500. Want to know why Arizona's school buildings and busses are in disrepair, its teachers have bottom-of-the-barrel salaries and its classrooms are full to overflowing with students? There's your answer.

Now let's see how many Arizona dollars go into instruction and how much goes elsewhere compared to the national average.

Arizona schools spend $4,482 on instruction and $3,818 on other school-related expenses.

On average, the nation's schools spend $7,080 on instruction and $4,720 on other expenses.

See what's happening here? The nation's schools spend about $2,600 more per student on instruction than Arizona and still have enough left over to spend $900 more than Arizona on all the other stuff. That extra $3,500 creates a win-win, both for instructional and non-instructional spending. Arizona is a budgetary loser on both counts.

The anti-public school crowd can blame school districts for poor money management all they want, but the fact is, you can only do so much to cut back on fixed expenses like building and transportation costs. The only place to save real money is by keeping teacher salaries low, class sizes high and instructional supplies at a minimum. That, in a nutshell, is Arizona's education funding story.

Here's a foolproof way to raise the percentage of money that makes it into instruction. Bring funding for Arizona schools closer to the national average. It's that simple.

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