‘Per Pupil’ Spending Statistic Meaningless, Misleading

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On a recent visit to Show Low where I met with city and county officials and students at Show Low High School, a number of attendees brought up the question of Arizona ranking 49th in the nation in education funding.

This number has swept through the education community and is being used as a hammer on the state legislature, which is often blamed for inadequately funding our schools. It creates the impression that Arizona is, as one misguided education leader recently said, a “third-world state” when it comes to education funding. The truth is, this ranking is not an accurate reflection of the money that is spent by our taxpayers for education and does a disservice to our state.

This “per pupil” statistic looks at education spending in a vacuum, and is meaningless and misleading because, while other states may purport to spend more per pupil, the calculation does not take into account the following:

1. Per capita income basis and cost of living adjustments.

2. Uniformity of funding categories in the calculation from state-to-state. For example, Arizona is highly ranked in terms of capital expenditures (school buildings) per pupil, but none of those dollars are factored into Arizona’s per pupil calculations.

3. Most importantly, it is not a reflection of actual student achievement.

Since 2000, the state of Arizona has increased funding for day-to-day operations by 33 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $5.1 billion in 2009. Total K-12 funding, including capital, from all sources (state, county, local and federal) has increased from $5.5 billion in FY2000 to $10.3 billion in FY2009 — a nearly 100-percent increase in education spending.

Arizona is ranked in the upper half nationally in meaningful, education-funding measuring sticks. Based on 2006 information from the non-partisan National Center for Educational Statistics, National Education Association, and the Arizona Tax Research Association, Arizona ranks:

• 21st in total dollars spent on K-12 (not per pupil).

• 21st in dollars spent on current operating expenses.

• 11th in the nation for average instructional staff salaries.

• 4th in the nation for parental choice in education for their children.

Focusing only on funding ignores what should be our primary concern — student achievement, an area where our state consistently ranks in the upper half of the nation. Can we do better? Absolutely, but statistics also show that money is not the only solution. The state of Utah spends far less than Arizona on education, but their students perform better academically. Conversely, the state of New Jersey spends far more than Arizona, but their students consistently perform much worse.

Arizona students rank in the 20s in reading, math and science. We have schools in Arizona that are tops in the nation. Our children get a good education if they apply themselves and have the support and encouragement of their parents.

While no one, including me, wants to cut education spending, the bottom line is that Arizona is facing the most severe budget crisis in our state’s history. At $3 billion, the FY2010 deficit is also the largest per capita state budget deficit in the country — larger than even California’s and New York’s.

With 18 grandchildren, many of whom are in public schools, education is one of my top priorities. I am putting my energy into ideas that will reform the education budgeting process to allow for more dollars to reach the classroom.

No child should think that their future is only dependent on how much the state spends on their education.

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