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Ranking 49th: The real story of how Az fell to bottom in K-12 spending

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What the Devil won't tell you

Ranking 49th: The real story of how Az fell to bottom in K-12 spending

Seeing past blowback against more funding for schools requires a dig through the record

  • Doug Harder/Flickr

Arizona kids became 49ers long before charter schools were a major financial factor and well before Gov. Doug Ducey discovered the figure and decided its time to dig into the State Land Trust to do something about it.

The "how we got here" part is suddenly important, it seems.

Ducey came upon a Census report released in June showing the state ranking 49th in K-12 per-pupil funding and, well, now it's a hootenanny.

Yes, we now have a veritable cornucopia of plans to lift us off the doormat of American primary and secondary education spending.

I type this rubbing my eyes shut and pinching my nose. Guys! The Census Bureau has ranked Arizona 49th pretty much every year for the last 18 years. OK, for a couple of years we may have been 48th or maybe 46th, but if you want to find Arizona rankings in the annual Census report start with the number 49. Your eyes won't have to move far.

Now comes a bit of backlash in the form of a sobering voice from the Arizona Taxpayer Research Association. ATRA released a response, penned by analyst Sean McCarthy, warning off using Census numbers in favor of using National Education Association figures. Fine. It's a good white paper. It's just that now the ATRA piece is being used to frame the arguments of the defenders of the spending status quo, as reported in the Arizona Capitol Times last week:

A document circulated to House Republicans in September included language taken nearly word-for-word from ATRA’s research, and highlights McCarthy’s report while making the case for increasing K-12 funding without a tax increase.

The report itself raises valid points about the challenges present in improving Arizona's standing in K-12 funding and concludes that no easy fix is available that will improve the numbers or the state's position. Amen. If new revenues aren't part of the solution, Arizona won't move up the ladder without the collapse of other states.

McCarthy has a rep for being a bit of a budget guru, and none of the data he provides is bad, nefarious or otherwise disingenuous. The ATRA report simply adds more information to the debate and for that it should be welcome. Do you see how magnanimous I can be?

In the hands of Republican lawmakers on the other hand, ATRA's numbers become talking points about how we got here and then … let the obfuscation begin! So I went and found out what really happened.

But first, let's give McCarthy his due.

He gripes, in some instances accurately, that the Census data informing the debate so far fails to account for the vast majority of charter school funding. The Census numbers only include charter schools run by school districts. Most Arizona charter schools are not run by districts. So it misrepresents total spending and requires the caveat that the Census numbers are only true for district schools. Throw in charter schools. Conjure up some math and Arizona may rise one spot because it lands us smack dab on Oklahoma, ranking 48th.

I use Census figures because, well, they are Arizona figures sent to the U.S. Department of Education and culled by the Census Bureau. They are accurate in terms of district schools and they are the figures the Arizona Auditor General uses to figure out “percentage of classroom spending versus the rest of the country” and that number is used to attack school districts every single March when the report comes out.

Plus, the conservative Republican governor cited it and said, "This is a problem." So I feel OK using them.

McCarthy prefers the perfectly fine National Education Association numbers, which parse the information thoroughly and a bit differently. Check them out. However, his broader complaint about the Census figures seems to be: How much do you want to hate yourself?

The numbers, by and by

“If you keep chasing (the Census Bureau) figure you are never going to be happy,” he told me, arguing instead that schools should make sure everyone has access to the same amount of money, which is a damn fine way to get districts fighting each other over the crumbs rather than asking the Legislature for a healthy meal.

I come neither to bury nor praise, other than to say he raises some good points, one of which (his best) I will leave to the end. So because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson, here are his key findings as to how we got here:

1. Arizona grew a bunch and high-growth states found it hard to keep the pace in terms of education spending. Conversely, states that made gains did so with flat or declining enrollment.

2. Arizona is lighter on the 18-64 population than 48 other states, which would seem to suggest we have fewer people in the workforce to pay for schools.

3. Arizona is a comparatively low-income state, which means it's a heavier lift for us to match others in terms of spending. This is true and the median income is declining.

4. Arizona ranks 28th in teacher pay when adjusted for per-capita income in the state. (Here I have to bitch a little. This sole bright spot in Arizona K-12 funding is more a function of the lousy jobs available to everyone else in the state, than a reflection of how well we pay teachers).

Climbing off the bottom of America's K-12 spending ladder is not going to be easy, McCarthy says and he's right. There are challenges. We're competing against states with stagnant populations who rise in rank with every new dollar. Arizona will need new dollars and then some.

Let's start with performance. Who cares if our children is learning? Well, the American Legislative Exchange Council digs Arizona schools. The rightwing state-level clearing house for legislation ranks our school-choice and free-market approach education policies No. 3 in the country. It's just that they rank our achievement at No. 47.

Now, on to our story to help slice through what will be thrown your way as the issue heats up.

With the lights on, it gets scary

Let's go back to Fiscal Year 1991-92. Cue the Cobain guitar riff as we revisit the grungy days when the state school budget smelled a lot more like teen spirit. It was the first year the Census Bureau started tracking state vs. state public school financing numbers. Arizona ranked 41st in the country in per-pupil funding for its K-12 system. Our revenues, however, ranked 35th and were within a 10 percent bump in funding of ranking No. 23 in the country. That was enough of that. We had taxes to cut.

Growth was nothing new. The state's population shot up by 55 percent in the 1970s and 35 percent in the 1980s. During the 1990s, we would experience 40 percent growth – nothing out of line with the past. We weren't spending a lot but we weren't at the bottom in the days when the GOP Legislative roster included names like Burton Barr, Jane Dee Hull, Freddy Hershberger and Jack Jewett. They had just fallen out of favor.

Politically, in Arizona, movement conservatives took over, and they sought to re-order the state as a model for business, providing low service in return for low taxes. Under Gov. Fife Symington, they began to approve budgets accordingly.

By Fiscal Year 1997, Arizona spent $367 more per pupil but had fallen to No. 49 for the first time, when charter school enrollment accounted for fewer than 2,000 kids. By 2001, Arizona was spending $1,188 more per pupil than in 1997 and still ranked 49th. No, it's not charter schools.

The growth monster

We were spending more but lagging. That was the high-growth, right? Sort of. As conservatives love to point out, free will exists.

Nevada experienced the highest growth of any state in the country and tumbled eight spots as well (betting on Red 18 no doubt). This wasn't the case for other high growth states. Colorado grew by 30 percent in the 1990s and fell just four spots. The state's growth was cut in half in the 2000s but its fall accelerated by six spots (I blame snowboarding).

On the other hand, Georgia experienced 25 percent growth in the 1990s and jumped from No. 35 in per-pupil funding to No. 26. In the 2000s, the Peach State grew by 20 percent and climbed to No. 25 before slashing and burning to fall back to 37th by 2013 (I blame the zombies). Georgia's enrollment growth during the past 25 years is nearly identical to Arizona. The faster Georgia grew the higher it climbed. The slower it grew the further it fell.

Let's look at Texas. Texas experienced rampant growth in the '90s and held their own in K-12 spending. Then they grew a little faster but fell by 10 spots between 2001 and 2013. I blame Bush.

No. Seriously. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush was solid on K-12 spending, showcasing his compassionate conservatism. Then he got a promoted to president of the United States and left the job to Rick Perry. Conservative Republicans took over the Texas Legislature and it was time to hold the line on spending.

Arizona's population and revenue grew in the '90s. School spending was increasing. But so too were tax cuts. I remember the editorial board meetings where Arizona's Republican leadership would blow off projected revenue gains as premature and irresponsible to spend. They'd warn of recession, meaning taxes had to be cut more. The rainy day fund had to be propped up, just in case. The Legislature and governor would give token increases that looked good on paper but didn't cover the cost of added enrollment.

In short, Arizona actively decided not to keep up with growth because 49 was good enough. This was years before the explosion in charter school enrollment but at a time when tax cuts were touted as the only way to grow the economy.

Did it work? Well, the group banging the drum for lower taxes says 20 years later we face a hard road to improve our school funding because we are still a low-income state. You be the judge.

The growth monster did not eat our homework.

The South gone done rose again

Maybe it was Y2K fever and the idea of a new millennium dawning – either luminously or with every computer in the world crashing – that inspired the country to action. Maybe the teachers unions started spiking the drinks of lawmakers. From 1996 to 2008, America found the school-funding religion.

Arizona did too. In 1997, Jane Dee Hull became governor, and she put a priority on K-12 spending, as did her successor Janet Napolitano. So the state began to climb in funds spent with an additional $1,600 per student between 1998 and 2008, even after adjusting for inflation. We rose from $6,400 per student in FY 2001 dollars to about $8,000 by 2008. Still we got buried.

As late as 1996, Arizona had company at the bottom that largely spoke with twang. When Rosey Red States got the religion – they got the religion. Eight states hovering within a few hundred per pupil of Arizona just about doubled their funding between 1996 and 2008.

Arizona simply couldn't keep up. Arizona was a high-growth state. Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Mexico were not. They took flight. But keep Georgia on your mind.

After our peers gorged themselves in the 2000's, Arizona needs  $1,000 more for each kid just to climb to 46th. But that second $1,000 increase gets us to 36th.  Had Arizona held its own in the 1990s and spent exactly what it spent from 2000 to today, we'd only be at 46. However, that first $1,000 increase would instead get us to 36th. The second $1,000 would get us to 26th. 

Arizona chose to invest less just as it chose not to hold its own as other states had during the 1990s boom. Then came the bust and sister, did we bust.

The rubble of a bubble burst

Some of the deep red states have reversed course on K-12 spending increases with the fall of the economy and the rise of the Tea Party seeking to cut spending.

Arizona's general fund faced the biggest dollar-for-dollar shortfall of any state in the country post-2008. K-12 budgets were cut by about $800 per student when we were already very close to the bottom.

Other states have lost a lot more. California tumbled 13 spots since 2008 from No. 23 to No. 36. That kind of a fall is a problem — maybe — but remaining at No. 49 is a crisis. It helps to have altitude.

The sky-is-not-falling crowd likes to point to Utah, which ranks dead last in per-pupil funding but has better test results than Arizona. I'll say it again: Arizona's child poverty rate is nearly twice that of Utah's, and the more poverty, the more expensive it is to teach.

The wonks will also throw up a bunch of caveats with terms like equalization, Roosevelt v. Bishop, deseg spending and over-rides that show how complicated school funding can be. We're not talking about that. This is the global freaking number. Arizona's sucks. 

Arizona ranks where it ranks because of leadership and a gamble that tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts would improve life for everyone. They didn't. Or maybe conservatives were protecting the right not to care. Fine. Argue that, then.

Might I suggest a plan ... to at least plan

Now bring back what McCarthy discussed in the ATRA report. Arizona is a growth state ranking second in percentage of population under 18 and older than 65. The state's wage base can't support a school system that ranks anywhere near the national average. Also, charter schools ain't going anywhere.

McCarthy's final point during our talk bears repeating. I asked him if school funding was adequate and he said, basically, define your terms and show me what adequate looks like.

That's not a bad idea. In fact, it's a necessary idea.

We can and should bitch about K-12 funding until it improves, but it won't improve much without a plan or sea change involving the discovery of oil. Not just any plan will do. The plan must have buy in from the political forces that make the state go.

The time is ripe. Why do you think Ducey found religion when he saw a number that dates back to 1997? Why this 49th place and not the previous umpteen? I would bet the business community got on his ass. Arizona isn't able to import workers who were taught in states that made the investment and businesses here are left with kids who were taught on the cheap. The state is making headlines as a K-12 wasteland. Are young workers going to flock here knowing that? Finally, Arizona can't trade eight spots of K-12 funding for tax cuts a second time. We gave up what we had of altitude.

The Arizona School Board Association, along with the Arizona Education Association, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the governor's office and, sure, throw in ATRA, all need to sit down together and come up with a plan to adequately fund Arizona's classrooms. Define what schools need, what they sure could use, what they would like to have and what they could do with more.

It's easy and pointless to ask for “more.” It's better to ask for something the powers that be have signed off on and can apply pressure to achieve.

There is good news of sorts. For the last five years, national spending has been flat. The waters are still. If this continues and we choose to act, we can make a move. If we wait until other states start spending again, we're just going to be further behind.

The state's leaders have free will to make decisions. Arizona's kids don't. They remain 49ers whether they like it or not. 

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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