School cuts — Inevitable? Harmful? - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

School cuts — Inevitable? Harmful?

There's division among observers

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Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:12 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The possibility of additional spending cuts and significant layoffs at Arizona's public schools has engendered emotional responses from teachers, students and education advocates.

Some speculate the cuts not only have diminished the quality of public education in the state, but also have given Arizona a bad reputation beyond its borders.

Others argue the reductions are inevitable, given the economy.

"The perception that we have a poor education system is really hurting us," said Renée Clift, associate dean for professional preparation at the University of Arizona College of Education.

Clift links education to the economic development of the state, arguing the state should ply students with quality instruction to prepare them for the workforce.

"If we want children to learn to use technology and to be competitive, then it's going to take money," Clift said. "There's a relationship between spending money and higher quality education."

Clift said a state with lower standards of education would have difficulties getting major employers to relocate.

Other observers of education policy, however, say the troubled economy and the state's looming budget deficits can't be ignored.

"It's childish and unrealistic to say schools should be funded at the same levels when people's homes are worth 50 percent less," said Matthew Ladner, a researcher with the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

Median home values in Arizona have fallen from a statewide average of $270,000 in 2006 to roughly $147,000 today, according to Zillow.com, an online real estate database.

The majority of school funding in Arizona is derived from property taxes.

Ladner further argues that, despite some reductions in education spending last year, the multi-year trend shows expenditures in public schools have increased annually.

"We have had a pretty substantial increase in per-pupil funding and have seen very little as a result," Ladner said. "The kids aren't learning more, it's just costing us more."

In particular, he points to an education funding analysis released by the Arizona Legislature's Joint Legislative Budget Committee in January 2009, which shows that state spending on education rose from $2.7 billion in fiscal 2000 to $5.1 billion in fiscal 2009.

During the same time, the number of public school students went from 840,100 to 1.058 million.

Ladner also said he suspects the recent public outcries at school board meeting criticizing the possible layoffs and spending cuts have been outsized in comparison to the level of spending in place.

Districts have sent reduction-in-force notifications to hundreds of teachers, letting them know that they might not have jobs at the start of the next school term. The Amphitheater and Marana school districts in the Northwest "RIF'd" more than 300 certified staff last week.

"This is basically a publicity stunt," Ladner said. "This is a pure strategic and cynical move on the part of school boards. They've scared the hell out of people to give them the incentive to go out and campaign for Proposition 100."

The proposition, on the ballot May 18, asks voters to approve a three-year, 1 percent sales tax increase. A portion of the money would fund school operations.

Clift said much of the spending that critics point to has been mandated by state and federal laws, particularly in the area of special education.

Casting doubt on arguments like Ladner's that increased spending on education doesn't mean results will follow, she said leaders in many industries recognize they need to spend money to have success.

"In many segments of society — business, sports — we say it costs money," Clift said. "It costs money to provide a really good education for all our children."

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