How $200M Could Have Been Better Spent

Although the real total costs will likely never be known, the Arizona Republic reported yesterday that Governor Ducey’s

five-month effort to close gaps along the U.S.-Mexico border with shipping containers will cost Arizona taxpayers more than $200 million.

I’m not writing to debate the wisdom of Ducey’s actions, (okay, just for a second, it was a stupid political stunt). But rather, I’d like to make a case for how that money could have been better spent.

Regardless of what you’ve heard from GOP lawmakers, or have read in right-leaning media, Arizona schools are not flush with cash. Rather, much of what’s been added recently just reinstates part of what was taken away since 2007 and leaves Arizona still at 48th in the nation for per-pupil funding. Additionally, our schools are still hemorrhaging teachers with almost 9,700 vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year and about 4,900 filled with alternate teaching requirements or long-term subs.

Another statistic that should also raise alarms, is Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends schools maintain a ratio of 250 to 1. The nationwide student-to-school-counselor ratio in the 2021-2022 school year was 408 to 1. Arizona’s ratio that same year was 716 to 1. Although this is down from the 905 to 1 Arizona had in 2019, it is still approaching double the national average and keeps us last in the nation in yet another dismal education statistic.

Superintendent Kathy Hoffman focused on this issue, tweeting in 2022,

Since 2019, I’ve successfully lobbied for the funds to add hundreds of school counselors, lowering our student to school counselor ratio by 20%

The AZPBS’ CronkiteNews verified her claim citing “an increase of 290 counselors in three years” for an improvement of 21%. This was one of Hoffman’s priorities because, as she said,

In an era of balloning classroom sizes, teachers feel unequipped to manage a class of 30 children while also finding the time to provide individualized attention to their students, especially those facing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts.

And that was in 2019, before the global pandemic which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared in November 2021,

pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency.

Hoffman was right to focus on this issue. What’s the chance “Stop CRT” Horne will do the same? (Yes, that is a rhetorical question.)

Before I start down that rabbit hole, let’s get back to the $200M. Based on what I’ve written thus far, I’m betting you can guess it has something to do with school counselors.

According to a SOSAZNETWORK.org report, 135 of Arizona’s 223 school districts are rural and serve 35% of the state’s students. More than 23% of these rural children live in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the nation. They also have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S. These kids need the additional help a qualified counselor can provide.

So, what if instead of using OUR $200M for a stupid, partisan, political stunt, Ducey had bought more school counselors with it?  The average salary for school counselors in Arizona is about $55K. To be safe, let’s add 30% for benefits which brings the total cost to $71,500. Let’s see, $200M divided by $71,500 average counselor salary and benefits buys 2,797 counselors for one year. That number of counselors divided by 135 school districts, would give us 20.71 years of one counselor per district. Think of the lives this could impact.

Okay, I know this math is VERY rough, after all, I’m a writer, not a statistician. We know that salaries would increase and it would be difficult to find enough counselors willing to go to some of these rural areas, even if we could fund them (that’s the case in my rural district). Maybe we would need to contract with companies to provide the professional support we need and this likely would cost substantially more. Maybe even then we couldn’t find them and we’d have to start a program to grow our own?

The point isn’t to solve this problem in this article, but rather to show that there were much more important priorities for the $200M than Doug Ducey’s personal erector set project. This is just one example, don’t even get me started on the needs in our rural animal shelters. I’ll save that for another post.

Let’s hope Governor Hobbs can find a way to work with the Arizona Legislature to make headway on fixing Arizona’s major problems. So far, she seems focused on education and water. That sounds about right to me. Nose to the grindstone Governor!

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