Educated Guess

Posted on January 26, 2005 | Type: In the News
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Arizona Republic Editorial

Making the tough choices about the future of public education in Arizona would be difficult enough with a firm understanding of what taxpayers are spending on education.

Incredibly, that most elemental fact - just how much are we spending on schools? - has eluded lawmakers, educators and parents for years.

Arizona's system of school financing has become such a Rube Goldberg puzzle of complicated formulas piled atop still more formulas that the most basic questions about school finance are practically unknowable.

Now, however, two conservative think tanks have taken a serious, sober look at Arizona's nearly incomprehensible mish-mash of public school spending and sought to make some decent sense of it.

The average total spending for a public-school student in Arizona is between $8,500 and $9,000 per year, according to an analysis produced jointly by the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation of Indianapolis.

The study, which can be found online is not a perfect tool.

It does not factor out, for example, the percentage each school district spends on administration overhead.

And it provides no response to that ages-old debate over where Arizona actually falls among the 50 states in terms of per-pupil spending. Whether Arizona truly matches up spending-wise with cheapskate states like Alabama or spendthrifts like New Jersey is not to be found in this report.

But if state lawmakers are going to set meaningful policy regarding what to spend on Arizona schoolchildren, they need hard numbers that make ready sense to laypeople, not just hard-core policy wonks. In that regard, the Goldwater-Friedman report is invaluable.

The authors compiled their data from the multiple funding-source records at the state Department of Education. The results include all 218 Arizona school districts, and they include all local, state and federal funding sources.

In a funding system as maddeningly complex as Arizona's - the National Education Association calculates Arizona's per-pupil spending at $5,009; Education Week put it at $5,487 - any analysis, however thorough, is destined to be challenged. The Goldwater analysis is no exception: The Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials take strong issue with several of the study's conclusions.

The bottom line of the Goldwater study is that Arizona spends far more on schools than many other interest groups believe. Those are fighting words in public-education circles, which advocate higher spending as the answer to most of public education's ills.

One reason the study is judged vulnerable is that the free-market Goldwater folk make no effort to hide their interest in exposing spending to the light of day: They want to see the money follow the student.

In other words, they expressly support school vouchers, which are anathema to the groups that are most hostile to the study's conclusions.

It would be valuable if the state Department of Education, which supplied the raw data in the first place, provided some analysis of its own regarding the Goldwater-Friedman conclusions.

The fact that some interest groups are throwing rocks at the study's conclusions is helpful. Debate is good. What is not helpful - to parents, to educators, to policymakers - would be ignoring this yeoman's attempt at shining the light of day on a matter that so few people comprehend.

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