AZ Senate President Andy Biggs claims more funding doesn’t produce better educational outcomes and points to Washington D.C. as proof. Wow, way to deflect Andy. The truth is, places with high poverty, crime and unemployment often require high per pupil funding to try to deal with these various intersecting complications. We have those places in Arizona too. But, I’m not sure how a subpar return on investment in D.C. education excuses Arizona’s ranking for the lowest per pupil funding in the nation. I also don’t buy that more funding doesn’t make a difference.
Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says we know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: lower class sizes, a broad curriculum, and the attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But, he says, “we can’t get there without stable, adequate, and equitable funding” and claims that approach to closing achievement gaps is “one we’ve never really tried.”[i] Too often, he says, promising efforts are abandoned after the next election cycle. Great sounding campaign promises after all, are much easier to make than real results are to deliver.
Governor Ducey and other Arizona GOP leadership claim they have solutions to provide additional education funding. But, tax increases are definitely not among them. Governor Ducey wants to take money from the sell of state trust lands to generate about $300 more per child. His plan, if approved by voters in 2016, would begin to help in 2017, but only for ten years and some fear it will draw down the trust land monies available for future use. Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan propose asking voters to shift funds from early childhood education programs to K-12 education. They claim that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of the $4,300 the state now provides.[ii]
I am open to learning more about Governor Ducey’s idea, but on the surface it seems like a quick fix that we’ll have to pay for over the long term. Tucson education blogger David Safier points out that Ducey’s roadmap for additional education funding has numerous winding roads with plenty of roadblocks built in.[iii] Let’s just say I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this idea to come to fruition. But, you have to admit; it does kind of make the Governor look like he really cares about helping Arizona’s K-12 school children.
As for shifting money from early childhood education programs to K-12, that is a dead on arrival idea for me. Arizona has already cut kindergarten funding in half requiring school districts to fund the other half “out of hide” if they want to provide full-day programs. The state provides zero funding for preschool, despite all the evident that shows it is absolutely critical to improving educational outcomes and success in life. Preschool has been shown results in adults with better jobs, less drug abuse and fewer arrests.[iv] In fact, children who attend preschool, are almost 50 percent less likely to end up in jail or prison by age 40. One researcher at the University of Minnesota said the average cost per child for 18 months of preschool in 2011 was $9,000, but his cost-benefit analysis suggested that led to at least $90,000 in benefits per child in terms of increased earnings, tax revenue, less criminal behavior, reduced mental health costs and other measures.[v] Or, put another way, when it comes to funding preschool, you can pay me now, or pay me later. And believe me, the interest is pretty steep.
As for the idea of going back to the voters to approve either of these plans, let’s just review recent history. The Arizona Legislature referred Proposition to the voters in 2001. The voters approved the proposition and the inflation funding that went with it. The Legislature indicated they understood the voter mandate when they initially appropriated the required funding, but when the recession hit in 2008, they decided to opt out of that pesky little part of the law. Now, the courts have told the Legislature that may not opt out and yet…wait for it….the Legislature still refuses to comply. This, despite a voter mandate, despite court orders, and despite surplus revenue.
Mr. Biggs claims that increased funding is not the answer, and asks “how much is enough?” To answer his question, I say I’m not sure, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, I don’t see it in a per pupil funding of $7,208 (from all sources) against a national average of $10,700. I don’t see it in our having made the highest cuts to per pupil funding since 2008. I don’t see it in our critical teacher shortage, and I don’t see it in facility maintenance and renewal fund that provided school districts only two percent of what were due from 2008 to 2013.[vi]
Finally, to Bigg’s claim that “some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job, even with current funding”, yes, our dedicated administrators and educators are doing all they can to do more with less. The situation reminds me of our military troops who would do whatever it took, with whatever they had, to accomplish the mission. Make no mistake, there is eventually a price to be paid. Just like a car can run for a long time without an oil change, problems will develop over time and eventually, the engine will seize up. In our Arizona public school districts, that price is now presenting itself in the form of a critical teacher shortage. With a counselor to student ratio of four times that recommended, it could also come in the form of more serious student behavioral incidents. These are just two examples, there are many more.
Governor Ducey and his GOP led Legislature continue to kick the can down the road while Arizona’s students (through the 6th grade) have never been in a fully funded classroom. Every year the funding is denied is one more year our students are not fully equipped to succeed. And if they aren’t fully equipped to succeed, neither is our state. Whether today’s K-12 students are ready or not, they will be leading tomorrow’s Arizona. Well, unless they had to move out of state to get a decent job because quality companies were too smart to relocate to a state that prioritizes private prisons over preschool. None of this is rocket science, we know what to do. The question is, do our elected leaders have the will to do the right thing and will we hold them to it? Maybe we should all remember this quote by James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a leader, the next generation.”