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Public schools now costlier than college

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Arizona public schools just hit a major milestone — they’re officially more expensive than the full freight tuition cost of sending a child to college at a four-year university here in the Grand Canyon State.  

As newly reported by the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Arizona public schools are now so awash in funding that they will have $14,326 to spend per student in the 2021-2022 school year. By comparison, according to the same budget analysts, tuition and fees at Arizona State University cost around $3,000 less, coming in at $11,348. At Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona, those tuition totals rise only to $11,896 and $12,671, respectively. In other words, attending any of Arizona’s three public universities would cost a family less than taxpayers are kicking in for each student in our public K-12 system.  

Matt Beienburg

Matt Beienburg

That’s not a message many proponents of the K-12 education bureaucracy want parents and taxpayers hearing, but then again, neither is the fact that Arizona’s per pupil K-12 funding has risen more than 40% over the past four decades (even adjusting for inflation and even before Arizona’s share of the latest two rounds of the $200 billion of federal Covid stimulus funds are even factored in).  

Now, in fairness, university tuition is partially subsidized by state and federal funding as well — and universities also received a windfall of cash from federal funds ostensibly related to Covid relief, so the total annual bill for a university education remains larger. But unlike for our K-12 kids, Arizona families have complete control over whether they want to shell out the $11,000+ per year for a college degree. But when it comes to K-12, taxpayers typically have to foot that bill regardless of whether a family thinks the education being offered is worth anything like $14,000 per year.   

Indeed, while many Arizona families fortunately have options via the state’s robust school choice landscape, there’s no shortage of students who have been utterly failed by the public school system while being blocked from using even a portion of that $14,000 for an education better suited to their needs. 

And while public school spendthrifts are already melting down over the recent defeat of the blatantly unconstitutional Proposition 208 income tax increase, Arizona voters need to very quickly realize just how much bloat has been added to our public school system. As officials in the Mesa Unified School District have confessed, for example, with the avalanche of federal Covid funding, “It’s exciting but also terrifying to know we have so much to spend.” And unfortunately, as documented by Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute:  

“Less than 20 percent of total ESSER [Covid relief] district funding will go to reopening, on average, and less than 40 percent will go to recovery. All told, $78 billion – $123 billion, out of nearly $190 billion, could go toward spending not directly related to COVID-19…[raising] questions of whether this overly abundant federal spending was intentional…[and] how districts might avoid ineffective, unnecessary, or otherwise undesirable expenditures.”  

There’s no doubt that Arizona’s education establishment will seek to squeeze out every ounce of extra dollars from taxpayers once this federal funding bonanza recedes, inevitably calling it a “cut” when legislators let the supposedly Covid-related relief funding recede back to more normal levels in future years. Arizona voters, however, deserve better than this narrative and must begin now to demand a higher return on the investments in our public schools before racking up even higher spending on them going forward. 

The runaway cost of America’s higher education system has already led too many students into exorbitant debt with a mixed return on their investment. Arizonans might want to think twice before celebrating even greater costs in K-12 education.  

Matt Beienburg is director of education policy and director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute. 

 

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