Arizona Declines to Treat Education as Investment

September 17, 2012

Democrats are making a big deal about how supporting education is an investment in the future.

In his speech at the Democratic national convention, former president Bill Clinton summarized their perspective:  “We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.”

That proposition doesn’t fly far in Arizona.  The goal here is to get by on as little as possible.

The state ranks 47th in the country in its per-pupil spending on education, according to the figures from the nation’s “report card.” Even Mississippi spends a smidgeon more per pupil than Arizona’s $7,931.

And the figure has been going down, not up.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this month that Arizona has reduced per-pupil funding since 2008 by the biggest percentage in the country.  The cutbacks, when calculated in inflation-adjusted dollars, amount to nearly 22 percent.

At the same time it provides fewer dollars, the state continues to impose new requirements on the schools.  In making the most recent such announcement, State Supt. of Public Instruction John Huppenthal was quoted as saying, “I grew up in a household where the food ran out on Sunday and shopping day was Wednesday.  To me, operating in a scarce resource environment is second nature.”

What difference do the budget limitations make?

One way to answer that question is to plot out each state’s spending against their student achievement on the education report card.  The figures produce a symmetrical pattern.

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The states that spent more than the median per pupil had a two-thirds probability (17 of 25 states) of testing better than the median in a composite of 4th- and 8th-grade math and reading scores.   To be more succinct, one might say these 17 states ”spend more and get more.”

Meanwhile, the states that spent less than the median had a two-thirds probability (17 of the other 25 states) of testing worse than the median.  In other words, these 17 states ”spend less and get less.”  Arizona is in this group.   Which states are which.

Socio-Economic Impact

Of course, other factors – such as the socio-economic status of the students – also contribute to the achievement results.  The ”over-achiever” states were able to score better while spending less because they have either fewer disadvantaged students, fewer minority students, or both.  Only North Carolina broke the patterm.  It has more of both those groups, yet it was able to spend less per pupil and still tested – just barely – above the median.

Generally this was not a recipe for success.  No other state in similar circumstances, Arizona included, matched North Carolina. Having heavy concentrations of poor and minority students seems reason to spend more rather than less.

But spending more isn’t by itself a guarantee.  In a study done in 2006 for Tennessee, the Rand Corporation found that spending more money for random purposes did little good.  At the same time though it found that additional money had a favorable impact, particularly in states with lower socio-economics, if it was spent for certain specified purposes.

The report said, “States that focus more resources on 1) lowering the ratio of pupils to teachers in the early grades (grades 1 to 4), 2) raising teacher salaries, 3) providing teachers with adequate teaching resources, and 4) providing larger public pre-kindergarten programs – other things being equal – have higher achievement scores.”

The Arizona Legislature sees this type of recommendation one way. School superintendents see it another. They are feeling the pinch particularly on teacher salaries, both in terms of attracting and retaining quality people.

Teachers Suffer the Effects

Dr. David Schauer, superintendent of the Kyrene Elementary District on Phoenix’s southeast side, reports four years of education cutbacks have made budget decisions “incredibly difficult.”

Kyrene teachers received no salary increases for three of those years.  Last year the district managed to cobble together a 2 percent raise.

Such frugality is not lost on those who might have considered a career in education. Schauer senses a teacher shortage is looming. “Young people aren’t entering the field,” he says.  “A teaching career used to provide stability, but the luster is gone.”

When it comes for instance to finding middle school math and science teachers, Dr. Karen Williams, superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary District in Phoenix, laments, “We can’t compete with the Intels of the world who pay $80,000 when we can only pay $40,000.”

Many weeks before Clinton spoke, Williams pretty much anticipated his sentiments.  Her version of the same thought: “If we really believe that education is the path for the state to be competitive in a global economy, we need to put some money where our mouth is.

“Money won’t solve all our problems,” she offers, “but it sure would help.”