It may be lonely at the top, but when it comes to education funding, Arizona has plenty of company at the bottom. Or so they say. At last count, more than half a dozen states claimed to be 49th in education funding:
"The political reality is that (Florida) lawmakers are cheap and entirely too satisfied with education spending that ranks 49th of the 50 states." St. Petersburg Times editorial, Oct. 15, 2004.
"Illinois ranks 49th in the nation in the proportion of state school funding it provides, caucus officials said." Chicago Tribune, Aug. 13, 2004.
"Tennessee . . . ranks 49th out of 50 states in per-pupil spending." Amy Ritchart, Leaf Chronicle, Oct. 17, 2004.
Add to that list, Idaho, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Utah and, of course, Arizona.
Who's right depends partly on what you include in education funding. For example, Census Bureau rankings include certain capital outlays. The National Education Association's "Rankings and Estimates" and Education Week's "Quality Counts" exclude such funding.
Arizona's ranking also changes considerably depending on how you define education funding. For instance, the Census Bureau ranks Arizona anywhere from 18th to 51st on 20 funding measures. Such variety makes it possible to pick and choose a state's ranking and then put it under an ominous "education funding" headline.
The complexity of state public-school finance systems makes it hard to know what's being spent and easy for people to believe their state is 49th. A 2004 Educational Testing Service poll found that nearly one in two Americans thinks per-student funding averages less than $5,000. However, U.S. Department of Education figures put average state spending closer to $9,000.
The fact is rankings tell policymakers little about real education funding. In Arizona, for instance, a Goldwater Institute analysis of state Department of Education financial data showed that per-pupil education funding is roughly $8,500 per student, significantly more than the $5,000 reported by the National Education Association and very near the U.S. average.
Nor do spending rankings take into account different needs in different states. A state like Arizona, with one of the fastest-growing urban populations, naturally has higher capital costs than states like Iowa that have declining populations. To suggest each state should have equivalent spending ignores real differences across student populations and state economies, among other things.
Spending rankings tell policymakers even less about what matters most: student performance. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C., spends $15,000 per pupil, the most in the nation, but students there come in dead last on the Nation's Report Card. In 2003, 90 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in D.C. failed reading proficiency.
This is not a fluke. In inflation-adjusted dollars, per-pupil spending in American public schools has more than tripled since 1959. During that period, standardized test scores have stagnated. If increased spending were a real measure of success, the states would have an "A." But test results indicate otherwise.
The real issue is not how much Arizona is spending but how well students are doing. From 1994 to 2003, 75 percent of Arizona fourth-graders failed proficiency tests in reading and math. Since 1991, Arizona has had the highest reported high school dropout rate in the country, with roughly 11 percent of students dropping out each year. That's despite the fact that state K-12 expenditures more than doubled from 1994 to 2004, to $3.9 billion from $1.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, far outpacing enrollment growth of 23 percent.
To improve student achievement, we must shift our focus from nearly meaningless rankings of spending to meaningful measures of student performance.
A Guide to Understanding State Funding of Arizona Public School Students, by Susan Aud and Vicki Murray, and a Student Funding Look-up are available here.
Vicki Murray, Ph.D., is director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Educational Opportunity.