Column: Arizona spending gains leader for fast growing states- more importantly for academic gains

I’m much happier discussing outcomes than inputs when it comes to K-12 education, but the above chart from Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli on spending per pupil trends deserves scrutiny. Arizona had the largest state increase in per pupil funding among states with 20 percent or more population growth between 2000 and 2015.

The x-axis tracks the percent change in enrollment between 2000 and 2015, while the y-axis shows the percentage increase in per pupil funding in constant 2015 dollars. The dotted line indicates a negative relationship between rapid enrollment growth and high levels of per pupil spending growth – in other words, if your population grew fast, the amount you spent per pupil grew slower. Most of the states with very large increases saw their student population shrink. Arizona looks to have seen population growth of approximately 27 percent during this period and per pupil funding growth of 11 percent.

A real dollar funding per pupil increase of 11 percent is not how you’ve commonly heard Arizona K-12 funding described. Whether there has been an increase or a decline in spending largely depends upon where one starts the clock. Our discussions typically start the clock in 2007, at the height of an intense real estate bubble in the state. Funny-money came pouring into the state during the bubble, and lawmakers increased school funding significantly. It is a clever bit of issue framing to describe the 2007 peak of the property bubble temporary level of spending as “pre-recession.” The year 2000 is also “pre-recession” for instance. This was well played by our friends in the K-12 school lobby but not a trick you would want to fall for in the future, dear reader.

A distressingly large percentage of Arizona K-12 commentary starts with the assumption that we are in a spending contest with other states. As you can see from Petrilli’s chart however, rapidly growing states don’t win spending per pupil growth contests- there are simply too many new students. In Arizona’s case, we also have an unusually small working age population –lots of elderly folks and large family sizes mean not many taxpayers in their peak earning years. Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb has noted repeatedly that Arizona could vastly increase taxes but still not move much up the ranks of state spending.

Idaho sits just above Arizona in rankings of state per pupil funding, and the state just below us is Utah. All three Western states are near the bottom. This isn’t a coincidence- average family size has a large impact on per pupil funding growth as does statewide enrollment growth. Here’s something else that happened during approximately this same period in the Nation’s Report Card data:

Take a look at New York on the chart- top left quadrant. New York saw a 50 percent increase in spending per pupil during this period, in large part because their enrollment declined but spending increased. Their scores however stagnated. Arizona meanwhile started the 21st Century almost a grade level behind New York students on 8th grade math but closed the gap with them with a much smaller increase in per pupil funding.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but rather the size of the fight in the dog. Arizona’s teachers, students, parents and taxpayers should all be thrilled to have caught up with New Yorkers in 8th grade math with an increase in funding 20 percent the size of that in New York. New Yorkers meanwhile should pack their golf clubs and move to Arizona.

Matthew Ladner

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