On schools, it's a bill of goods - Tucson Local Media: Voices

On schools, it's a bill of goods

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Posted: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:21 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

I understand why Republican legislators want to claim our schools are well-funded. There's nothing that puts a damper on their desire to cut school funding like the nationally accepted fact that we’re 49th in what we spend per student. If they succeed in taking the ax to school funding again in next year's budget, we'll replace Utah at the bottom of the heap.

Republicans hope to make their cuts without getting thrown out of office in 2010, so they're doing everything they can to convince us we can “economize” on education without doing our children any harm.

Among their efforts is a one-page list of talking points Republican legislators carry around with them filled with facts and figures to “prove” Arizona schools and students are doing just fine.

A word of warning: Do not buy a used car from Republican legislators. They'll sell you an old clunker with a new paint job and make you think you bought a brand new Mercedes. Their numbers look great, until you look at them carefully.

For instance, no one would say, "We should be proud that we cram more students into each classroom than other states." It's true, but it's a tough sell to voters. Only Utah has a higher student-to-teacher ratio.

So what do you do to make it sound like large class sizes are a good thing? You say Arizona is 26th in "Funding per classroom of students."

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? We're in the middle of the pack in funding per classroom. But look at how they arrived at that figure. Students carry a certain amount of "funding" around with them. So naturally, if you pack more students in the room, you end up with more "funding" in each classroom.

That's like saying, "Parents with eight children spend more money on food than parents with two children." It's true, but with more mouths to feed, the bigger food budget doesn’t mean each child gets more to eat.

The numbers game continues. Republicans say we’re 19th in "Total revenues from the state government" spent on education. Doesn't that sound like we're spending plenty of money on our schools?

The problem is, they left out another important figure. Arizona has the 13th-largest student population in the country. The more students you have, the more money you end up spending, even if you spend less on each student.

Look what happens when the two numbers are put together. It turns out we're 13th in our student population, but we're only 19th in the amount we spend on education. It doesn't sound quite as good when it's put that way, does it?

Republicans have a problem. The simple, honest truth won't sell cuts to education, so they have to torture the facts to fit their message. It's their only hope. They're fighting against the nationally accepted fact that we're 49th in per student funding, a figure both liberal and conservative groups arrive at by making straight dollar-for-dollar comparisons between the states.

So they turn into dishonest car salesmen. "Don't worry about that number on the odometer, folks. Did I mention this baby gets great mileage [when it's going downhill with a tail wind]?"

They'll even use out-of-date figures to make their point. They say we're 12th place in "Average salary of all instructional staff." That's true – or it was in 2005. But since then, we've slipped to 44th.

They follow that by saying we're 24th in "Average salary of public school teachers." True again – for 2005. Today we're 36th.

I wish I had space to go through all their misleading facts and figures line by line, but the point is clear. If they had solid arguments that we can cut into our children's educations without causing harm, they'd make them. Without good arguments, all they can do is try to con Arizonans into buying a bill of goods.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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