More Fool’s Gold: AZ education costs more today than in 2003

by David Safier
I'm still getting daily emails from the Goldwater Institute — my fault, I requested them — and they're still full of whoppers. Often, I just grit my teeth because I don't know enough about the subject at hand to mount an effective argument. But when it comes to education . . .

In an April 1 email, G.I. was back to asserting that Arizona spends $9,500 per student on education, using a Joint Legislative Budget Committee study to back up the claim. I'll leave that statement be. The metaphysical "irresistible object meets immovable force" discussions about that topic on BfA don't need to be repeated.

But then the email claims the study says we spend $1,000 more per student today than in 2003, an assertion I hadn't seen before.

So I looked up the JLBC study and found that the next-to-last line is labeled "Funding per student." Sure enough, the 2003 funding is listed as $8,380, and the 2008 funding is listed at $9,519. There you have it: about $1,000 more spent in 2008.

But then I looked down at the last line.

The last line is labeled "Inflation adjusted funding per student." The study begins in 2000, so it uses that year as the standard and adjusts all the other years for inflation. That's what any reasonable study does when it wants to show if there's a real increase or decrease in spending.

Adjusted for inflation, the 2003 per student funding is $7,895, and the 2008 is $7,871. In other words, in constant dollars, Arizona actually spent a few dollars more in 2003 than in 2008, not less.

You know, when I began teaching, I could buy gas for 39 cents a gallon and ground beef for 49 cents a pound. That was 1969. Of course, my salary was less than $8,000 that year, so those figures can't really be compared to what things cost today. It's pretty obvious, you have to adjust for inflation.

G.I.'s assertion that we spent $1,000 more per student in 2003 than in 2008 looks like such a blatant misrepresentation of the figures in the JLBC study, part of me wonders if I got it wrong. I worry my friends over at G.I. will write a comment proving I'm a complete idiot, and I'll spend the rest of the day wiping egg off my face. Or maybe they'll say, "Didn't you see the April 1 date on the email? April Fools, guy! Gotcha!"

But I've gone over and over the figures and even checked with someone else who knows how to read these things better than I do, and I think I got it right.

Unless I'm told differently, I'm going to assume the worst, that whoever put this together at G.I. purposely distorted one of the findings in the study to make a point. We can quibble about whether it's a lie or simply a "selective use of the data." Since it looks to me like their purpose is to deceive, I prefer to call it a lie.

0 responses to “More Fool’s Gold: AZ education costs more today than in 2003

  1. Matthew Ladner


    I’ve shown you the figures from JLBC and the Financial Report. Real spending per pupil is way up, therefore not only was there no effort to deceive, there was no deception.

  2. David Safier


    We’ve both made our points. Mine is simply that your Institute puts out statements containing misleading information which 99% of your readers don’t fact check. That puts your credibility in question. Why should I accept other statements you make as accurate or reasonable?

  3. Matthew Ladner


    Not only are the figures provided factually accurate, it is also the case that inflation adjusted spending per pupil is up substantially in Arizona. I’ll grant the 2000-2008 time period makes a stronger point than the 2003-2008 period, but given that inflation adjusted spending really did increase substantially, an accusation of deception is unwarranted.

    Meanwhile, it is a bit rich given your odd habit of celebrating every time you see someone repeat what you know to be a lowball number.

  4. David Safier


    Don’t you find it a bit dishonest to make a point using numbers that no one with your education and experience would use in a research paper without explanation, especially when you have better numbers at your disposal, on the next line?

    I tossed the words “misleading” and “dishonest” around pretty interchangeably, because I think using numbers to mislead your reader is dishonest.

  5. Matthew Ladner


    I think you are having another “A-ha! There’s lunch money in that $9,707 figure!” moment. The figure is a $1,000 higher per pupil, and there was no claim that it was a thousand dollars higher in inflation adjusted dollars.

  6. David Safier


    Let me go back to what I said in the post. I referred to an April 1 email from Goldwater Institute that stated, “The $9,500 figure is supported by a recent Joint Legislative Budget Committee study. It is also about $1,000 more per-pupil than the state spent during the 2003-2004 school year.”

    I said in my post I don’t see any reason to debate the $9,500 figure any more. Been there, done that. But I questioned the honesty of saying we now spend “about $1,000 more per-pupil than the state spent during the 2003-2004 school year.” Using inflation adjusted numbers, we spent more in 2003 than in 2008 or 2009. No credible researcher would compare numbers across years without adjusting them for inflation.

    In your comment, you go back to 2000 school year. If the original email had used that year, I would not have written the post. But for some reason, the email used the 2003-2004 school year.

    I was even planning to let that go, until I received a post card from G.I. that repeated the same statement about current spending being $1,000 more than in 2003-2004. Seeing the same misstatement twice was more than I could let pass.

    If G.I. makes statements that are either incorrect or purposely misleading, I’m going to point them out when I catch them. I welcome honest, intellectual disagreements, and you and I have indulged in a few of those. But dishonesty has to be called for what it is.

  7. Matthew Ladner


    Here is the JLBC document in question:

    First, notice just how close JLBC’s current dollar figure is to the one calculated from the Superintendent’s report: $9698 as opposed to $9,707 per pupil.

    Next, notice that in 2000, the spending per pupil to your teddy bear number: $6,497 per pupil. You only get to keep your teddy bear however by ignoring the large increase in spending since 2000. Using that as the baseline for constant dollars, you will notice that spending per pupil increased by 20%.

    So, what this document shows is that one: current spending per pupil is very close to what I’ve claimed. Two- that there has been a substantial increase in per pupil spending.

    Sadly however there has not been a substantial improvement in student learning. Inflation adjusted spending per pupil went up by 20%, and the state’s reading scores have barely budged at the 4th grade level, and have worsened for 8th graders.

    I believe an accurate way to describe this situation is that the productivity of spending in the Arizona public school system suffered a substantial decline since 2000.

  8. Short answer to your question Patt – no, it isn’t!

    Longer comment to Mr. Safier’s message above: We should all be outraged that Senator Melvin and other legislators continue to use the disingenuous information provided by a private special interest group…there is a taxpayer-funded research office in the basement of the Senate which is there to provide them with FACTS. Real, relevant ones…not numbers that are twisted and stretched and otherwise molded in order to fit a prescribed argument.

    Why are they doing this? My opinion is that they are beating this dead horse for two reasons:

    1. They want to cut deeper into education during FY09-10 and are almost certain to try to get the public to help them abolish the ‘voter protected’ education funds that previous generations wisely put away from our legislature’s grasp. Trying to get the public to buy into the myth that educators are squirrelling away public money under the radar and/or are actually flush with cash might convince some folks that further cuts are OK.


    2. It appears that Senator Melvin and certain other majority members of the legislature are trying to distort factual information in order to bolster their message that we should scrap public education for “School Choice”.

    Try asking Senator Melvin if he supports public education. First he’ll launch into his canned speech about how he is a teacher at University of Phoenix, etc. (I’ll bet 10 bucks you heard this gem at the YMCA meeting!) Then he’ll say that he supports ‘school choice’. Nudge a little harder, and he still won’t say “Yes – I support public education.” Wonder why?

    This is OK in one respect – he’s entitled to his opinion. What ISN’T OK is that he is STILL using the Gold-spun inflated education numbers despite the fact that several groups of his CONSTITUENTS (you know, the people he is supposed to represent) have given him documentation & source information which disproves the Goldwater figures. This first occured back in February and again at a recent ‘townhall event’.

    When asked recently why he keeps using the “almost $10,000” number despite be given evidence to the contrary, Melvin told a LD26 parent “you have your facts and we have ours”. Huh? Um…who is “we”? You and the people you represent, or you and the spin doctors over at the special interest group?

  9. Francine Shacter

    Not me, said the crabby old lady, not me!!!!

  10. I attended the forum yesterday with the LD 26 legislators at the Northwest YMCA. Sen. Melvin reiterated his claim that we spend $10,000 per student and was waving around his fact sheet. I was sitting next to the Superintendent of schools from Marana, and we both shook our heads at his words. I was given the opportunity to ask a question. I started with a comment that I had handed out pink slips the week before to 12 of my teachers.
    I asked if Rep. Williams and Sen. Melvin would support the reinstatement of the education equalization tax. Rep. Williams said he wants the money “surplanted” (sic) by another source, but no he didn’t support it.
    Sen. Melvin said “No,” he’d like to create a “safe haven” of low taxes for businesses. He then brought out his GI fact sheet and stated again that AZ spends almost $10,000 per student. Melvin said that everyone was acting like we “threw a bomb” into the K-12 budget. I told him that it felt exactly like that.
    Now, here’s the wierd AL part:
    Sen. Melvin says to me, in the middle of his diatribe, “There’s an emergency room down the street if you need one.”
    The audience gasped.

    After the forum, I approached Sen. Melvin and asked him why he said that to me. His response, in that slow Minnesota way of talking? “Well, you were shaking your head so hard, that I thought you might hurt yourself and need to go to urgent care.”

    I told him it was a pretty rude answer in front of a forum of people, and he owed me an apology, which he gave.

    Still, is this the type of person you want making your laws?