by David Safier
Sometimes I agree with Tucson Citizen's Mark Evans, sometimes I don't. Right now, I disagree vehemently with his argument against the one cent sales tax for education initiative Prop. 204. (If you got the Monday paper edition of the Star, you may have read his column there, but it's only online at the Citizen.)
Mark's a smart guy, and he makes a complex argument, but it's wrong-headed. You know the adage, "The perfect is the enemy of the good"? Mark's argument is an example of "The theoretical best case scenario is the enemy of what's happening down here on planet Arizona."
Basically, Mark says, rightly, that the one cent sales tax initiative makes sure the state doesn't spend any less on education than it did in the 2011 or 2012 budget, and the sales tax revenues will be added on top of that figure. Mark hates that idea.
[T]o use the initiative process to wall off billions of dollars from budget writers only makes Arizona’s overall fiscal problems worse and, on balance, is bad policy.
He acknowledges there's a reason to "wall off" the money: to stop the Republican-majority lege from just rolling the money from the sales tax initiative into the budget and either maintaining or lowering spending for education. If the initiative passes and the sales tax dollars are added to current spending, that will result in a $500-$600 per student funding increase (If that sounds like a lot of money, read on). But even though Mark acknowledges that's the only way to assure the money will go to education and he acknowledges we need more money for education, he thinks the "walling off" the funds will stop the state from responding responsibly if there is a serious economic crisis.
Mark's solution? Elect better legislators who will do the right thing for education. It's a lovely idea in that better, theoretical world of his. But down here on planet Arizona, it's a pipe dream to think the state's voters will elect enough progressive legislators to repair our broken tax system (broken, among other reasons, because the income tax has been cut by a third over recent decades, which has beggared the budget) any time in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Arizona's children (the state's future) are getting screwed out of the education they deserve.
We are now dead last in the amount we spend per student, as we have been for years, and if our children get that added $500-$600, we'll still be dead last. So to say the lege should be allowed to cut education funding still further if the economy goes further south is to say it's OK to balance the budget on the backs of our children, who are already carrying too much of the burden on their shoulders by having their educational opportunities diminished.
To put this whole thing in perspective, let's look at the amount of money Arizona would "wall off" if the initiative passes, in terms of dollars per student. As I said earlier, we spend less per student than any state in the nation, and if the initiative passes, we'll still be at the bottom of the heap.
I'm taking these numbers from the NEA's Education Rankings and Estimates for 2009-2010 (It takes awhile to crunch new numbers, so it's hard to get current figures). Different groups come up with different figures, but the important thing is the state-to-state comparison, and there almost everyone (except ALEC and its acolytes) agrees.
According to the NEA estimates, Arizona spends about $5,000 less per student than the national average. But let's eliminate all those New England high rollers who may be raising the curve with out-of-control spending and just look at how we stack up against some southern states. In per student dollars, Arizona spends:
- $3,000 less than Florida
- $4,000 less than Kentucky and South Carolina
- $5,000 less than Louisiana, Georgia and West Virginia
- $6,000 less than Virginia
- $7,000 less than Arkansas
The only two states we're close to in per student spending are Nevada (which spends $1,000 more than we do) and Utah (which spends $2,000 more). With that extra $500-$600 per student in the initiative, we won't even catch up to #48 and #49.
Please, don't let our dead-last position pull even further behind other states' per student spending. For the sake of the children and Arizona's future, vote Yes on Prop. 204.
DEBUNKING THE "WE'RE DOING AS WELL (OR AS BADLY) EDUCATING OUR STUDENTS AS OTHER STATES" MYTH: Most of Arizona's teachers and administrators, like teachers and administrators across the country, are doing their damndest to give their students the best educations possible, but that doesn't mean our students are achieving at the same level as students elsewhere. If you compare similar students in Arizona to those elsewhere (upper middle class students to upper middle class students, low income students to low income students, minority students paired with other minority students of similar incomes, etc.), Arizona student achievement is lower than students elsewhere. So, for example, students at Catalina Foothills High are getting a high quality education, but when they get to college, they could find themselves at a disadvantage compared to similar students from other states. And students at Tucson High, to use another example, which is filled with dedicated teachers who care deeply about their students, are likely to leave school achieving at a lower level than similar students in other states. If education and chances for employment were a foot race, Arizona's students would be two steps behind the competition.