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It’s rhetoric, not fact, to say that public schools lack $1 billion

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K-12 education in Arizona is missing a billion dollars. The phrase is repeated so frequently the media mimics it without understanding its meaning. The trouble is, it’s rhetoric — not fact.

Total K-12 spending a decade ago was $9.7 billion for $9,263 per pupil and the estimate for today (not including the recently passed state budget) is $10.9 billion at $9,774 per pupil according to JLBC.

Sean McCarthy

Sean McCarthy

Advocates calculate the one billion figure with misleading math. They take total spending from FY 2008 and adjust every single fund source for inflation through today. Every fund! This despite there being no voter requirement to inflate anything other than the equalization formula. This twisted measurement curiously begins its analysis 11 years ago during the economic fantasyland of 2007.

Plainly, there is no mechanism to inflate every fund that goes to K-12. Is the state Legislature responsible to inflate the more than one billion dollars the feds provide? The money the state spends on new school construction is based on district growth; not an automatic adjustment for inflation. Bonds and overrides are local matters and depend on voter approval. There are hundreds of millions in nonformula programs that are capped or otherwise limited. Measuring the state’s commitment to education in this manner is intentionally unreachable.

If Arizona is to grade itself this way, it must annually pay for population and inflation, plus a new amount on top of that to account for the billions which are not inflated. The Legislature recently added an additional $400 million to K-12 on top of inflation and population growth for FY 2019. But if they do not further inflate the funds outside of their control, the budget will undoubtedly be called a “cut to K-12” in FY 2020 using this measurement.

This isn’t to say K-12 wasn’t cut during the recession. Like the rest of government and ordinary Arizonans, everyone took a haircut. K-12 lost significant money in capital funding. It’s easy to forget in a sunny day in 2018 that Arizona lost 40 percent of all state general fund revenues between 2008 and 2010. The Legislature ignored the advice of economists in 2007 and passed an unsustainable state budget for FY 2008 that was 60 percent larger than it was just five years earlier.

A fair way to measure the state’s K-12 appropriation would be to adjust the equalization formula by inflation and pupils. The equalization formula is the bedrock of the K-12 finance formula and is what the voters directed the Legislature to inflate. Adjusting for inflation and pupils, the equalization formula for next year will be roughly $160 million shy of what it was a decade ago. Advocates have legitimate facts they can use; there’s no need for tortured analysis.

Measuring inputs to K-12 by adjusting every single line item for inflation is the ultimate carrot in front of the horse routine. Worse than misguided rhetoric, the billion dollar claim is insulting to taxpayers because it ensures their investment will forever be described as inadequate.

— Sean McCarthy is the senior research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association

12 education in Arizona is missing a billion dollars. The phrase is repeated so frequently the media mimics it without understanding its meaning. The trouble is, it’s rhetoric — not fact.

Total K-12 spending a decade ago was $9.7 billion for $9,263 per pupil and the estimate for today (not including the recently passed state budget) is $10.9 billion at $9,774 per pupil according to JLBC.

Advocates calculate the one billion figure with misleading math. They take total spending from FY 2008 and adjust every single fund source for inflation through today. Every fund! This despite there being no voter requirement to inflate anything other than the equalization formula. This twisted measurement curiously begins its analysis 11 years ago during the economic fantasyland of 2007.

Plainly, there is no mechanism to inflate every fund that goes to K-12. Is the state Legislature responsible to inflate the more than one billion dollars the feds provide? The money the state spends on new school construction is based on district growth; not an automatic adjustment for inflation. Bonds and overrides are local matters and depend on voter approval. There are hundreds of millions in nonformula programs that are capped or otherwise limited. Measuring the state’s commitment to education in this manner is intentionally unreachable.

If Arizona is to grade itself this way, it must annually pay for population and inflation, plus a new amount on top of that to account for the billions which are not inflated. The Legislature recently added an additional $400 million to K-12 on top of inflation and population growth for FY 2019. But if they do not further inflate the funds outside of their control, the budget will undoubtedly be called a “cut to K-12” in FY 2020 using this measurement.

This isn’t to say K-12 wasn’t cut during the recession. Like the rest of government and ordinary Arizonans, everyone took a haircut. K-12 lost significant money in capital funding. It’s easy to forget in a sunny day in 2018 that Arizona lost 40 percent of all state general fund revenues between 2008 and 2010. The Legislature ignored the advice of economists in 2007 and passed an unsustainable state budget for FY 2008 that was 60 percent larger than it was just five years earlier.

A fair way to measure the state’s K-12 appropriation would be to adjust the equalization formula by inflation and pupils. The equalization formula is the bedrock of the K-12 finance formula and is what the voters directed the Legislature to inflate. Adjusting for inflation and pupils, the equalization formula for next year will be roughly $160 million shy of what it was a decade ago. Advocates have legitimate facts they can use; there’s no need for tortured analysis.

Measuring inputs to K-12 by adjusting every single line item for inflation is the ultimate carrot in front of the horse routine. Worse than misguided rhetoric, the billion dollar claim is insulting to taxpayers because it ensures their investment will forever be described as inadequate.

— Sean McCarthy is the senior research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association

___________________________________________________________

The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

2 comments

  1. K-12 education was underfunded a decade ago; reaching that same funding level after adjusting for inflation will still result in an underfunded K-12 system. Prop 123 funding is a temporary, 10-year revenue source that needs to be replaced with appropriations dollars not coming from inflated distributions from the state land trust.

  2. In particular, neither now nor a decade ago was there enough money to fund full-day kindergarten. Also, the salaries of K-12 school teachers are not competitive with neighboring states.

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