Criminologist James Q. Wilson relates a cautionary tale about the decline of American cities in his classic book, Thinking About Crime. After the completion of the Interstate Highway System, Americans had the option of working in a major city but living out in a suburb. With each resident that moved away, the cities lost tax revenue and faced a choice: cut spending or raise taxes on those still living in the city. If cities cut services such as police protection, people did not like it and were more likely to move to the suburbs. If cities raised taxes, people did not like it and definitely moved to the suburbs. Major cities needed a third option. They needed to figure out how to provide city services more efficiently.
The need to do more with less represents the challenge facing Arizona now. The path advocated by the O’Connor House and Expect More Arizona in calling for a third tax increase for education represents the same danger that confronted major cities in the late 1950s. Adding even more taxes will put Arizona on a path to decline that limits our economic growth and quality of life.
I admire Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and I have friends involved with both projects and they are good people who sincerely wish to improve Arizona’s education system. Arizona, however, has lost more than 300,000 private sector jobs since the downturn began. We have raised both property and sales taxes already. Arizonans cannot afford to pay higher taxes.
Arizona’s K-12 system has some of the lowest test scores in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Our schools employ one non-teacher for every teacher, when the ratio in 1950 was more than two teachers for every non-teacher. Our community colleges graduate only a tiny minority of students after three years. Arizona’s universities also do very poorly on the graduation front as well, and have bloated up their administrative budgets.
It will take resolve to redirect ineffective education spending into the right places. But if we fail to meet this challenge, history may judge us little better than it judges the city fathers of Detroit circa 1960. We need courage and imagination to find a better way for Arizona.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute.
Arizona Republic: Campaign stresses Arizona duty to fund education