Education must look at reality
Arizona Republic
Jan. 9, 2005

Robert Robb

Another year, another study purporting to show Arizona ranking low in K-12 education spending, another round of hand-wringing.

It's time for a reality check about education spending in Arizona.

Last week, Education Week released a study showing that Arizona, based upon 2002 data, ranked 49th among the states in "education spending per student."

Except that Education Week does not include all education spending in its analysis. It excludes school construction, equipment and other capital purchases.

Arizona happens to rank very high among the states in capital spending.

Including all education spending, Arizona's rank moves up to at least in the mid-30s among the states in per-pupil expenditures. Even higher as a percentage of personal income.

Arizona is a fast-growing state. So, it builds lots of new schools and hires lots of new teachers.

While the state's position at the extremities might be worth examining, it should hardly be unexpected that, compared to other states, Arizona would rank relatively high in capital spending and relatively low in operating spending.

In any event, the case simply cannot be made that Arizona taxpayers are unusually miserly regarding education.

Part of the education-spending myth is that things were going OK in Arizona until conservatives took over state government in the 1990s and instituted slash-and-burn policies.

But, according to Education Week, from 1992 to 2002, or before Saint Janet was elected governor to keep the barbarians at the gates, increases in operating expenditures in Arizona actually kept pace with the national average.

So, any neglect actually predates what the spenders regard as Arizona's political Dark Ages.

The real issue, however, shouldn't be what Arizona spends or how it spends it. The real issue should be how well Arizona students are learning.

Education Week also ranks Arizona in the bottom third of the states on that, which would be a concern if true.

But Education Week bases its rankings on the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those tests are only given to a sampling of students in each state. And they are not given every year in every grade.

Arizona gives a national standardized test to all students every year in grades 2 through 9 and Arizona college-bound students take standardized national entrance exams.

These more comprehensive assessments consistently show Arizona students performing at or above national averages, and improving over time.

In reality, Arizona doesn't have an education-spending problem, or a unique problem with public education generally, for that matter.

While American schools in general aren't moving students along fast enough compared with other developed countries, Arizona's suburban schools do pretty well compared to those in other states.

Arizona has the same challenge with inner-city schools that the rest of the country faces, somewhat exacerbated by a high percentage of English learners.

Now, there are those who thoroughly disagree with this analysis, who believe that one of the state's biggest problems is a drastic underfunding of education.

But if you follow this debate closely, you'll notice something very peculiar: Those who strenuously make that critique, who believe that Arizona's low rank in operational per-pupil spending is a serious problem, never really propose doing anything about it.

That's because the cost of doing anything meaningful would be enormous.

Moving Arizona to the national average in operational spending per-pupil would cost a cool $1.6 billion a year, or more than a 20 percent increase in state taxes. Just moving Arizona out of the bottom 10 would cost more than $800 million a year, or more than a 10 percent increase in taxes.

Simply put, nothing that will materially affect how Arizona ranks in operational per-pupil expenditures is likely to happen politically.

The constant hand-wringing over where Arizona ranks on this particular spending measurement, however, has become a counterproductive distraction.

It's time for the education debate to move on to things that might actually happen and make a difference.

Reach Robb at or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.