Phoenix--Arizona faces one of the largest budget deficits in the nation and lawmakers are struggling to close the gap. Because half of all General Fund spending goes toward education, schools and universities will necessarily be affected by the state's across-the-board belt tightening.
While some school administrators and special interest groups have referred to the potential budget cuts "slashing education" and "shortsighted and borderline malicious," the Goldwater Institute would like to separate the reality of education funding in Arizona from several often publicized myths.
Myth #1: Schools simply cannot afford the budget reductions being proposed by the legislature.
Fact: The budget cuts proposed by the State House leadership amounts to a 2.5 percent reduction. Over the last five years, K-12 funding has increased by 40 percent. Reducing funding by 2.5 percent will still leave schools with more money than they had in 2008 adjusted for inflation.
Myth #2: Schools have tightened their belts as much as possible. There's simply nothing left to cut.
Fact: Last year Tucson Unified School District lost track of millions of dollars in equipment. With similar highly publicized stories frequently surfacing, there's room to tighten up. In addition to implementing better controls on equipment and supplies, the Goldwater Institute recommends three more ways schools and school districts can cut their budgets without eliminating teaching positions: 1.) Ban teachers from having non-classroom assignments; 2.) Ban teacher's union employees from conducting union work on district payroll; 3.) Cut administrative bloat at the district level. Arizona has an unusually large share of non-teaching public school employees. Teachers make up slightly less than half of on-site staff in public schools, placing Arizona fourth worst among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in teachers as a share of on-site public school staff.
Myth #3: Arizona already ranks 49th in the nation in education funding and we don't want to be number 50.
Fact: When all of Arizona's funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states at more than $9,000 per student per year.
Myth #4: Suspending the tax credit for donations toward private school tuition will save money and mitigate the need for education budget cuts.
Fact: Getting children into private schools with $1,000 of foregone tax revenue costs less than the $9,000 spent on a child in the public school system. To save money, the legislature should expand the private school scholarship tax credit and move more children from public to private schools. Suspending it will disrupt these students' educations and increase costs to the state as children return to public schools.
Myth #5: Student success will suffer if budget cuts lead to increased class size.
Fact: Research shows that students would be much better off if schools did let their most ineffective teachers go, and redistributed the students to more effective instructors. Teacher quality has been found to be 10- to 20-times more important than class size in achieving student learning gains. Schools could thereby cut their spending and improve student learning simultaneously.
Myth #6: All-day kindergarten is essential to successful child development and should not be eliminated by budget cuts.
Fact: Studies have consistently shown that any benefit from all-day kindergarten disappears by the time a child reaches the third grade, a phenomenon termed "fade out." Also, all-day kindergarten was widespread in Arizona public schools before a specified state funding stream was created two years ago, districts can continue all-day kindergarten if it is a priority.
Myth #7: Individual districts and schools are reluctant to cut their own budgets, so the legislature should direct where cuts will be made.
Fact: Individual districts and schools will be far more effective in determining how to cut their budgets while protecting their students and employees and should be given the flexibility to set their own budget priorities.
To that point, Madison Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Tim Ham said on January 26, 2009:
"The Madison School District understands the crisis the State of Arizona is in economically and knows reductions in education funding will be required. We would ask that districts be allowed to use any of their funding sources to meet their obligations. This would require a temporary suspension of current legal requirements. However, it would provide flexibility, local control, and equality among districts."
Myth #8: Cuts in university funding will drive Arizona into "Third World" status.
Fact: Statewide, higher education budgets have increased by $332 million since 2004. If the full proposed FY 2009 cut of $80.5 million to ASU's budget were enacted, it would still receive more state funding than in 2006. Northern Arizona University would lose $31 million in FY 2009, but still receive more state funds than in 2007. The University of Arizona faces a proposed $103 million cut in FY 2009, which would take it back to 2004 state funding levels.
Myth #9: Investment in higher education is critical to the future success of Arizona's economy.
Fact: Comparing states' higher-education appropriations and gross state products yields no evidence that spending drives economic growth. From 1991 to 2000, none of the top 10 states in greatest higher-education appropriations were among the top 10 in economic growth.
Myth #10: Cuts to university budgets will make it necessary to double tuition thereby violating the Arizona Constitution's clause to make higher education "nearly as free as possible."
Fact: Legal precedent has determined that "nearly as free as possible" means tuition for Arizona public universities must remain in the bottom-third of the nation. Any increase in university tuition is required to meet that standard. As it stands, tuition at Arizona public universities is very low compared to national averages.
The Goldwater Institute is a nonprofit public policy research and litigation organization whose work is made possible by the generosity of its supporters.