Arizona needs to make sweeping changes in both its budget and education systems to lower the more than $1 billion deficit and improve test scores, speakers at a taxpayer town hall said Sept. 25.
Tom Jenney, Arizona Director of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, said it is important to focus in on education reform because it is the biggest item in the state’s budget.
“It is very, very hard to cut the budget without cutting education, but it is very politically difficult to do,” Jenney said. “It is the huge elephant in the room that no one wants to cut.”
Matthew Ladner, of the Goldwater Institute, said even though Arizona is currently spending around $9,700 per student according to his calculations, we are getting “less bang for our buck” than we did 50 years ago.
Ladner calculated per-pupil spending by taking the amount spent in 2007-2008 at all schools (excluding charter schools), and dividing it by the number of students. If you add in charter schools, the amount drops to around $9,500 per student.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences, per-pupil expenditures are at $7,141 in Arizona.
“There is myth that kids today are not as smart as in 1960, but that is not true,” Ladner said.
Ladner pointed to a 1999 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress that showed reading, math and science scores for 12th-graders have hovered around the same for the past three decades.
However, even though scores have remained the same, spending has jumped — considering inflation, in 1960, $2,800 was spent per student.
“The problem is we are spending three times as much to get them to the same place,” he said. “I am not against public education ... but we have a gigantic budget deficit.”
To illustrate Arizona’s lackluster performance, Ladner cross-referenced Arizona’s fourth-grade reading scores with Florida’s over the last 15 years.
Florida spends $8,555 per student according to the U.S. Department of Education Institute.
While Arizona scores have remained consistent, around 209, Florida’s reading scores have jumped from 206 in 1998 to 224 in 2007.
“We have seen zero improvement in reading from 1992 to 2007,” he said.
How did Florida raise its test scores? Ladner said they made common sense reforms. They use a state test, like the AIMS, but “they have never dumbed their test down.”
“AIMS has been dumbed down five times,” he said.
They also have real consequences. They grade schools from A to F and offer one of the largest voucher programs in the country. They are also one of the leaders in virtual classrooms and they offer alternative certification for people who have had professional careers and now want to teach, he said.
“We need the moral courage to do education reform,” he said. “There is a lot of resistance, but if you do, do the right thing, you can get results.”
Besides education, Jenney said cuts throughout the budget need to be made to lower 2010’s structural deficit. State Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) echoed Jenney’s sentiment and added that overspending has to stop.
“We have got to learn to live on what we have so we can be free,” she said, “so we can be in charge of our destiny instead of having the federal government in charge of us.”
Jenney said the states deficit started in fiscal year 2007-2008 after the housing market went bust and then-governor Janet Napolitano was spending every single dollar that came into the state.
“Why did we spend every single dollar that came in? Part of that answer is that there is a natural propensity of politicians to do that and part of it is we had a governor who was very much interested in spending money,” he said. “Why didn’t Republicans stop this from happening? The governor is very powerful and part of it is they enjoy spending money. It is easy to spend money.”
“The result of that, if you don’t bring it into alignment, is a deficit.”
Jenney said Napolitano passed the 2004 and 2008 budgets with the help of Democrats and a handful of Republicans.
Allen said Napolitano would tack something on to the budget to get enough Republican votes.
“She is a very clever lady by the way. Gov. Janet Napolitano is not a dumb woman; she is not a dumb governor, at least not from the point of view of politicians. She knew what she was doing.”
Jenney said organizations like his predicted a crash would occur in the budget without of control spending.
“Gov. Janet Napolitano is a clever gal. She saw that this train was going to crash. She saw this roller coaster was going over a cliff. Remember when she endorsed Obama early on in the race? She was making a very calculated, smart decision.”
“When she got that job in Washington, she bailed. She got off the speeding train before it crashed,” he said.