An interesting number

by David Safier

The Goldwater Institute loves to place Arizona's per pupil expenditures at around $9,000, thousands higher than the number cited in most national comparisons. That's to prove that we lavish a ridiculous amount of money on our students here in Arizona. Then it uses an apples-and-oranges comparison of its high figure with the usual per pupil spending figures in other states to show we're not really 49th in spending.

[UPDATE: Matthew Ladner lists this little sleight of hand in his 10 Myths about Arizona education:

Myth No. 3: Arizona already ranks 49th in the nation in education funding and we don’t want to be number 50.

Fact: When all of Arizona’s funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states at more than $9,000 per student per year.


(I wish these very intelligent people would be intellectually honest once in awhile. There's plenty worth fighting about concerning educational philosophy, but most of their material is spin and blather to confuse and confound, not to illuminate.)

Of course, our Republican legislators are picking up the $9,000 figure and throwing it around with abandon.

Funny thing, though. A conservative group that compares per pupil expenditures puts Arizona at number 50: $6,248 per pupil compared with a national average of $9,389.

The publication is the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) Report Card on American Education. The foreword is by Bill Bennett, Reagan's Ed Secretary and about as doctrinaire a conservative as you're going to find anywhere.

ALEC ranks Arizona 31st in educational achievement, by the way, which, I suppose, shows we're getting lots of bang for our buck. Except that it arrives at the 31 figure by mixing ACT and SAT scores — tests taken by only a portion of students that varies from state to state — with the NAEP score, which is accepted as a way to compare student achievement state to state. On the NAEP, we rank around 42nd according to ALEC, which is probably a reasonably accurate assessment of our national achievement rank, but we're in the 20s and 30s on the ACT and SAT, which boosts the score. (Of course, far fewer Arizona students take the ACT and SAT than many other states, so you can't really compare the scores.)

Once again, intellectual honesty is left bleeding on the ground with a conservative shiv stuck in its back.

(I can see your eyes glazing over out there. Sorry for getting wonky on you, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.)

16 responses to “An interesting number

  1. Mr. Ladner:

    Interesting how your response dodges my main point. MY school district does not receive anywhere close to the elevated funding you constantly allude to. Our district is also excelling academically. Any yet…we are struggling to provide what most people consider to be ‘the basics’ – great teachers, basic supplies, safe and appropriate school buildings, etc. – on the funding levels provided by the state of Arizona.

    Article 11, Section 10 of the Arizona Constitution reads in part:
    “…the legislature shall make such appropriations, to be met by taxation, as shall insure the proper maintenance of all state educational institutions, and shall make such appropropriations as shall provide for their development and improvement.”

    While our schools are certainly not crumbling, I doubt very much that anyone could look at our funding situation and say that Arizona is currently providing sufficient funding “for (our) development and improvement”.

    Or maybe you would disagree with this? In light of a very possible $4 million in cuts we are looking at for next year, what do you suggest we do away with? Since 80% of our budget is salary, it is worth mentioning that four million is equal to roughly 89 FTE teaching positions (and I’m being generous here at $45k per position – far above starting salary).

    89 Teaching positions divided by 7 schools – that’s just about 13 teachers per school.

    My son’s elementary school has 23 K-5 teachers plus 9 FT teachers who teach special education, art, music, PE, etc. Which program do you think we should do away with? Should we just do away with all of the art, music and gym classes and move the special ed kids to a different school? That still leaves us with four K-12 teachers to cut. Where should we chose? Should we have 30+ kids in each grade level from 1-5 or do we get rid of Kindergarten?

    Now, my calculations above don’t include our five EAs. EAs are “Educational Assistants”, and that position has become even more crucial since classroom sizes skyrocketed (no money for extra teachers!). EAs watch the kids on the playground so teachers can have lunch, they give special attention to kids on both ends of the spectrum (gifted and struggling) during classroom instruction, and they handle a myriad of other jobs on campus that always involve our kids. Their salary? Try an average of around $10/hour. And let me tell you, our EAs are all priceless.

    We also have one Principal, two secretaries (sorry-indispensible for a number of reasons), a school counselor and a health office employee (lost our nurse awhile back – we now have one that travels between schools). Can’t get rid of the health office employee – you wouldn’t believe the number of children who require daily injections or who are struggling with serious diseases or allergies! Same goes for the counselor – she runs a number of services for military kids who have lost a parent, children who are homeless (yes, even in our relatively ‘affluent’ school), victims of abuse, etc.

    We harvest our rainwater, turn off our lights, leave the air conditioning off as long as possible and some teachers skip turning on the lights altogether in the sunnier months. Still room for efficiency improvement here, of course, since our school building is just over 40 years old. We’re definitely paying attention to what we can fix, however, since our district’s “Excess Utilities” is running just over $800k this yar.

    Our NEAP, AIMS and Terra Nova tests are all above average so I’m not terribly interested in hearing about how our lack of performance equates to our students and school employees being undeserving of appropriate funds.

    My in-depth analysis of my district funding (see msg above)could only reveal approx. $6863 in spending per child. Although that number doesn’t even come close to what you claim is ‘average’, the funny thing is that my calculations fall within the range of a number of national studies who have taken a look at every state’s per pupil funding numbers:

    National Center of Education Statistics
    $7,537/student (48th)

    Education Week/Quality Counts Survey
    $7,112/student (50th)

    US Census Bureau
    $6,472/student (49th)

    American Legislative Exchange Council
    $6,248/student (50th)

    National Education Association
    $5,255/student (51st)

    (most of these studies are current as of 2006-2007)

    So, Mr. Ladner, I’m dying to know:
    1. How is it that the Goldwater Institute continues to stick by the “$9,000” plus number…despite national interest to the contrary?? None of the above surveys have any evidence of bias against Arizona, and they are all comparing ‘apples to apples’ (Please skip the lecture about our wonky funding system and how it’s too difficult for all these national surveyors to understand – places like Michigan have millages that make our local structure look positively streamlined)

    2. More importantly and immediately pertinent: What do you suggest we cut in our district if the next proposed K-12 cuts pass through the legislature? How low do we go in per-pupil funding until even you admit that we are probably underfunded?

  2. Sigh. You truly love that 44% statistic. I don’t doubt it, but without going far deeper into the statistic, it doesn’t mean much.

    How about this? Based on a study commissioned by Bush’s Department of Education, the weakest schools in the country in terms of achievement are conservative Christian schools. So I’m sure you don’t want students getting such poor educations. How about saying no tax credits can go to students attending conservative Christian schools?

    And no, I’m not suggesting this. If we have tax credits (and I don’t think we should) and religious schools are allowed to participate, we shouldn’t discriminate against one group. The point I’m making is, educational weaknesses can be found everywhere. They can be used to demonstrate we should abandon those schools, or to let us know those are areas where we need to concentrate on improvement.

    Arizona public schools need improvement? I couldn’t agree more. And improvement takes more money — money targeted to work on the specific problems.

  3. Matthew Ladner

    Parent X-

    Please take note of the fact that the average statewide revenue per pupil would cover the tuition costs for three out of four schools you cite, despite the fact that they are all well above the statewide average.

    In addition, if you don’t believe that the public schools of Arizona are not on the whole run well (of course there are many excellent ones) I’d refer you to the NAEP website that shows that 44% of Arizona 4th graders couldn’t read at a basic level on the nation’s most respected source of K-12 data:

  4. Mr. Ladner:

    I just read your string and one line in particular caught my eye:
    “Although it evidently isn’t spent terribly well, Arizona public schools have a generous amount of revenue.”

    Are you kidding me???

    My child attends an exceptional public school. In fact, all seven schools in our district have been ranked as “excelling” ever since the Department of Education began using the term.

    Although his school is lucky to have a fantastic principal, highly qualified & dedicated teachers and a cadre of parent volunteers, we have yet to witness that “generous amount of revenue” you mentioned. A few years ago, our district had to trim assistant principals in the upper grades (elementary never had them) and we lost our librarian. Parents have long paid for many things that districts outside of Arizona provide to their students – all school supplies (including basic cleaning material, Kleenex, etc.), field trips (including bus costs), computers for the classrooms, etc. And we are very fortunate that our district is relatively affluent and that our parents are able to provide that type of additional support.

    Mid-way through this year, our fiscally responsible, well-run district was asked to absorb another $1 million in cuts from somewhere within their balanced budget. This meant draining the ’emergency’ carryover fund and scrambling to make more internal cuts (furloughs, etc.). What is also means is that all of our back-up plans have been used.

    I have poured over the data for our district, and when you count it all – the Base Revenue Control Limit (BRCL), all M&O, transportation, CORL, Excess Utilities, Prop 301, Career Ladder, tribal gaming money, JTED, unrestricted & soft capital, building renewal, federal dollars, etc. PLUS our local overrides which were recently passed (approximately $2.1 million…not a benefit that most districts around us receive) I’m still looking at a maximum of $7,081 per student. Oops – actually $6,863/student once you take out the $1 million in cuts this year. And that is before any non-student deductions (debt servicing on bonds, etc.) are figured in.

    80% of our Maintenance and Operations money (the bulk of the dollars listed above) go to personnel (salary, benefits, fixed costs such as employer contributions to FICA, Medicare, etc.).

    My child is already in a classroom of 26 children. We lose just one teacher at his grade level at his school, and next year he’ll be learning with 34 nine year olds.

    Private school tuition at the non-church affliated private schools in our area?
    St. Gregory’s = $14,300-$15,300/year
    Green Fields Country Day = $9,500 – $14,200/year
    Kino School = $6,975(K-6); $7,380 (7-12)
    Castlehill = $8,400

    …and these schools, of course, can and do limit the number of children in each class and the number of kids who need special assistance and programs.

    Is money all that counts? No. But you’d better believe that our parents ARE outraged with groups such as yours who are singing about how well-funded (but, alas! poorly run) our public schools are. We have over 4,000 families here who beg to differ.

  5. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    You are right- I should have said $9,707 instead of around $9,000. 🙂

    The schools exclude major categories of revenue, pretend that state revenue is total revenue, report an unreliable number and then repeat a mantra of being 49th. This is indeed an apples to oranges comparison. Given that I do not know how many other states are fudging their numbers, however, I will agree that I should not and henceforth will not make any claims about rankings.

    The larger point however is that $9,707 is a great deal of revenue per pupil-again more than twice the average private school tuition in the state and way above the average private school cost. It strikes me as rather untenable to cry out in outrage at a 3 percent cut in state funding.

  6. Mr. Ladner,

    I agree that an average of $9,700 per child per year certainly sounds generous to me. Especially when the state is facing a potential $3 billion dollar budget shortfall.

  7. Mr. Ladner,

    You concede that you shouldn’t make any claims about rankings? I’d like to remind you about this claim in your answer to Myth #3: “When all of Arizona’s funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states at more than $9,000 per student per year.”

    My response to your claim was this:

    “The Goldwater Institute loves to place Arizona’s per pupil expenditures at around $9,000, thousands higher than the number cited in most national comparisons. That’s to prove that we lavish a ridiculous amount of money on our students here in Arizona. Then it uses an apples-and-oranges comparison of its high figure with the usual per pupil spending figures in other states to show we’re not really 49th in spending.”

    It sounds to me like my criticism of your statement is fair, based on what you wrote in you comment above.

  8. Matthew Ladner


    Nope- I’ll stick by my earlier claim that the entire ranking process is a pig’s breakfast, and that $9,700 per kid in revenue is a generous amount of money. If you’d like me to concede the point that I ought not to make any claims about rankings- I agree to do so.

  9. Mr. Ladner-

    Are you suggesting that you took all other state’s local funding amounts into account when you stated that Arizona ranks in the middle of the states?

    If so, can you please provide that data to back up the claim?

    If not sir, your ranking is flawed and should be revised to do a fair comparison.

  10. Matthew Ladner

    Baseline but not total funding. The confusion is purposeful- the baseline funding gets reported as total funding. Given that schools actually do receive and spend this money, it should be counted in the total. Otherwise, we should simply abolish the funding. In essence, the schools want to have their cake and eat it too.

    In other words, getting back to the original topic, it seems apparent to me that by pretending that about $3,000 per student in revenue didn’t exist while they were busy spending it, that it has in fact been Arizona’s school establishment that has been intellectually dishonest, rather than me.

  11. I reviewed the financial data. To get to the $6,248 per student, ALEC is not including local & county funding in the calculation. Local tax levies and such.

    Now that does makes some sense when you are trying to compare funding levels between states. Those local funds would obviously not apply to all state schools. So that $6,248 would be baseline funding.

  12. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    You raise a number of issues. First, ALEC uses the bad numbers for the same reason that everyone else does- they look up the numbers, and repeat them. Digging around in arcane reports and figuring out how states either are cooking their numbers or not cooking them is a task for a forensic auditor.

    Your assertion about Mr. Horne and the Goldwater Institute deserves a bit of amendment. The Goldwater Institute sued Superintendent Horne last year, and we have also had an prolonged public dispute with him regarding the state’s testing system. There are issues of agreement and disagreement we have with Mr. Horne.

    You make a valid point regarding cost vs. tuition in private schooling- total cost is higher. We addressed that in our survey of private schools in Arizona and total cost per pupil was just over $6k.

    Your original topic was an accusation of intellectual dishonesty for citing a figure in that neighborhood. I hope that given that the state reported $9,232,916,095 in revenue last year and average daily attendance of 951,117 I hope that we can agree that this is not an imaginary or fabricated number.

  13. Mr. Ladner.

    Before I respond to what you wrote, let me mention what you didn’t address. Why would ALEC use the number $6248 for Arizona’s per pupil spending instead of the $9,000 you prefer? The group’s conservative credentials are pretty solid, so I don’t think they’re trying to low ball the number.

    Could it be that they don’t consider spending for building of schools as a reasonable part of the per student spending number? I don’t know. I’m just asking.

    And in my comment above, I note that Horne agrees that Arizona is 49th in the nation in per pupil spending. Why doesn’t he agree with you that Arizona is in the middle of the pack? After all, he’s pretty close in philosophy to G.I., and his designee to the Charter School Board,Mary Gifford, is an alum of your Institute. He must read your publications.

    Possibly that’s why you said in your comment, let’s forget about rankings, shall we? You don’t seem very eager to defend your statement in the answer to Myth #3, “Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states.”

    To be honest,I don’t think cost is the most important factor in education. My purpose was to show that the numbers you put forward is not universally accepted, even among conservative educators, and to show that you’re playing fast and loose with figures for a political end.

    But since we’re talking numbers . . .

    You state that the average private school cost in Arizona is $4,398. Based on figures I’ve looked at, that seems fairly accurate. But it needs a bit of explanation.

    About 70% of private schools in the Tucson area are religious schools. Since that’s pretty close to the national average, I’ll assume the percentage holds true for all of Arizona.

    Religious schools generally have the least expensive tuition, often a half to a third of non-religious private schools. I’m fairly sure the reason is, they’re subsidized in one way or another. I know the Catholic Church subsidizes its schools. You’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that’s true of many other religious schools as well. I would love to see the books of a school that actually spends $3,500 per student and no more.

    Non-religious schools charge in the neighborhood or $7,000 to $12,000 tuition, sometimes more for high school. And that often doesn’t count the cost of textbooks and other expenses. That tells me that the true cost of a reasonable education is something like what public schools spend.

    And please don’t tell me the private schools spend it better than public schools. The Bush administration’s Dept. of Ed. created a study that concluded there is no significant difference in student achievement between traditional public, charter and most private schools. The only schools that showed lower achievement were conservative Christian schools. I can’t vouch for the study’s accuracy, but I know, if the Bush administration could have shown traditional public schools were at the bottom of the pack in achievement, they would have been overjoyed.

    I personally object to the state funding religious schools, both for the sake of the state and religion. I won’t go into my reasons in detail here, but I can at another time.

    The state of Arizona objects to the state funding religious schools as well. It’s written into our constitution. And that’s why tax credits were born (and, I believe, born here in Arizona. If I’m right, we have the distinction of passing the first tuition tax credit legislation in the country). The Supreme Court ruled that tax credits, unlike vouchers, aren’t technically state money, since the dollars never pass through the state house door. That may be true in the technically legal sense, but in the real world, the state is funding the schools, since every dollar of tax credit money is one less dollar in the state coffers.

    So one of my primary objections to tuition tax credits and vouchers is that they put the state in the business of providing religious education. I feel strongly that is the province of the private sector

  14. Mr. Safier-

    The whole process of ranking states is not a terribly productive one. Arizona provides bad numbers, and so do other states. On the other hand, some states provide very accurate numbers. The whole ranking exercise is a pig’s breakfast.

    You can go on to the Texas Education Agency website and get very detailed state and district expenditure numbers that all add up. If you take the total revenue received and divide it by the number of students, you get something very close to the reported number. There isn’t a big discrepancy between expenditures and revenue, etc.

    Here is Arizona, there is a huge difference between the revenues and the reported expenditures. Ergo, the logical conclusion to draw is that the expenditure number is grossly under reported.

    In 2006 the Goldwater Institute surveyed private schools in the state and found an average tuition cost of $4,398. So at over $9k in revenue per child you could afford to pay the tuition for two children to attend an Arizona private school. Although it evidently isn’t spent terribly well, Arizona public schools have a generous amount of revenue.

    Also, the National Assessment for Educational Progress found that 44% of Arizona public school 4th graders scored “below basic” on reading in 2007:

    In my opinion, intellectual honesty requires one to recognition of the fact that the path to improving Arizona public schools does not lie in throwing more money at them.

    Some progressives are sincerely interested in K-12 progress. An important test of seriousness on this front involves whether you are willing to admit that simply throwing money at today’s broken system isn’t the path to improvement.

  15. Mr. Ladner.

    When I was teaching in Portland, Oregon, a conservative columnist in the Oregonian occasionally explained that schools spend far more than is usually reported. My memory is shaky here, but I think he said the per pupil expenditure is more like $12,000 instead of the $7,500 figure most people use.

    Here’s the point. Let’s compare like with like. When Education Week compares states’ education spending, they try as much as possible to use the same criteria to determine the amount of money each state spends, and the set of numbers they generate put Arizona 49th. They don’t hate Arizona and purposely lower our number to make us look bad.

    I imagine the columnist in Portland was doing the same kind of math that you are to get his high per student number. Both of your numbers may be accurate using the data you include. If you want to gather data from all the states using those same criteria, then I’ll take your comparison seriously. Otherwise, you’re comparing two different sets of numbers.

    Here’s a comment from Tom Horne from a Howard Fischer story, one of the rare times he and I agree: “Horne said he agrees with figures from Education Week magazine which puts per-student funding in Arizona at 49th in the nation.” [

    Is Horne wrong on this one?

  16. Mr. Safier-

    Exactly what districts spend is difficult to nail down due to the state’s opaque and unreliable system of reporting. Quite frankly, the state releases bad numbers, and they are often repeated. Revenues are clearer however. Please examine the contents of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s finance report:

    On page 6 of that document, you will find a figure for all revenues collected by Arizona school districts from all sources. That number is $9,232,916,095. If you divide that number by the ADM for districts on page 9 of the same document, you get a figure well over $9,000 per pupil ($9,707.45). If you are inclined to divide the revenue number by fall enrollment rather than average attendance, effectively forgiving them for taking money for students that have since dropped out or moved away, the figure is still near $9k.

    Now of course perhaps schools have been building the mother of all rainy day funds by collecting $9,707 per pupil in revenue while spending only $6k or some of the other fantastic figures provided, but if so the money must be going to someone’s Cayman Island account. The more likely explanation is that the state has been systematically under-reporting spending by excluding major categories of funding.