Guest Editorial

By Boaz Witbeck  |  NOVEMBER 4, 2015

State Land Trust money must be used to push for effective K-12 reforms
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The Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity supports the broad outlines of Governor Doug Ducey’s emerging State Land Trust proposal, which aims to put more money in K-12 classrooms without increasing taxes.

But we want to be careful to explain what we do not support. We do not support simply throwing more money at the current dysfunctional K-12 school district system. As we have explained many times in the past (see a recent example here), most of Arizona’s school districts have more than enough money to pay good teachers great salaries. On a per-pupil basis, counting revenues from all sources (local, state and federal), most of Arizona’s school districts spend significantly more than charter schools do, and often spend more than private schools do, but achieve inferior results in terms of student performance. Nationwide, there is no correlation between increased per-pupil spending and increased student performance (see the scatter plot chart at this post.)

If Arizona is going to accelerate the disbursement of education funds from the State Land Trust, that increased spending must be used to push for effective reforms to our broken K-12 system.

First, we must get more money into school district classrooms, and stop wasting so much on out-of-classroom expenditures. This includes giving district managers the freedom to pay good teachers competitive salaries, fire clock-punchers and throw the union-imposed pay scale in the garbage can.

According to the state Auditor General, only 54 percent of all Arizona public school funding gets into the classroom, significantly lower than the 61 percent achieved nationally.

In the bureaucratic culture of school districts, where managers are insulated from market competition and teacher salaries are determined by a union-imposed political pay scale, low teacher pay is the final straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

Imagine being a talented, hard-working 30-year old teacher in a typical school district classroom. You work very hard, you spend extra hours every week helping students in difficult situations, and you achieve strong results on your students’ test scores. Down the hall is a 55-year old clock-puncher who puts in minimal effort and whose students are merely treading water in terms of academic performance. In the current system, because of her seniority and the fact that she’s higher up on the union food chain, the clock-puncher (who should have been fired years ago) makes a lot more money than you do. Then comes the final straw: low pay caused by too much money spent outside the classroom. No wonder so many talented teachers leave the system. Some leave teaching altogether, which is a tragedy. Others switch to charter or private schools (often taking a pay cut to do so), to be in a less bureaucratic culture. Sadly, some teachers stay in the system, but lose their motivation and become clock-punchers.

To help district schools compete in the emerging system, we should give district managers the freedom to slash administrative and other out-of-classroom expenditures. We should give district managers the freedom to operate outside of massive mandates and paperwork imposed by the state and federal governments (with the added bonus of allowing managers to lay off related paper-pushers and grant-writers).

It’s unclear at this point whether school district bureaucrats are ready for that kind of freedom. The Arizona Legislature passed a reform a few years ago that allowed districts to operate schools as charter schools. Sadly, too many districts scammed the system. They took charter money from the state government, but kept gouging local property taxpayers. And while pretending to put the “charter schools” under ostensibly independent management, they kept the same administrative bloat and the union pay scale that rewards clock-punchers and punishes talented and motivated teachers.

The failure of district schools to pay excellent teachers what they’re worth is bad news for teachers, and more importantly, it’s bad news for students. As Dr. Erik Hanushek of the Hoover Institution has found in his research, excellent teachers can dramatically influence a student’s lifetime income. AFP-Arizona wants Arizona schools to be able to hire, motivate and keep excellent teachers.

Second, we must expand school choice, to give parents and students more options and to put the pressure of market competition on school managers. Though Arizona’s education system has seen some recent improvements in student achievement (note: that’s at a time when the Legislature has been accused of slashing state spending on K-12), there is not enough parental choice to provide the best educational opportunities for our children. We can do better.

Arizona’s school districts are in many ways relics of the 19th-century American school system, where graduates mostly stayed close to home and district schools faced a strong and sustained feedback loop from taxpayers and involved citizens in their local communities. But today, students and their families are highly mobile. And so are taxpayers.

Arizona needs a system of “backpack funding” that works in today’s highly mobile society. Students and their families need to be able to take an adequate amount of per-pupil funds (by the way, we’re not talking about a literal backpack full of cash!) and shop for educational options in a relatively free market environment. All of Arizona’s students and families should be empowered (through something like Arizona’s nascent system of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) to choose among a wide variety of educational options, including online learning, charter schools, homeschooling, private schools, and (for older students) vocational training.

If increased funding from the State Land Trust is not used to push for fundamental reforms to our education system, it will become yet another failed effort to throw more money at a sclerotic district school system.

And a final note, with regard to State Land Trust finances: We agree with the positions of ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, as presented in a recent report. Although we did support the 2.5 percent payout formula approved by voters in 2012, we agree with CSEL that the proposed 10/5 payout is unlikely to put much of a dent, if any, in the trust corpus. Further, state land trust money is (and will remain) a drop in the $9 billion bucket of Arizona K-12 spending. We also believe that thanks to digital/online learning innovations and competitive market dynamics, education in the future will be radically cheaper than it is now, making Arizona students and families far less dependent on government funding of all kinds, including payouts from the State Land Trust.

You can find your state Legislators and their email addresses by going to this link. Please send them quick, personalized emails letting them know you want any new money from the State Land Trust to be used to get more money into classrooms and expand school choice. Thank you!

Boaz Witbeck is Arizona Policy Analyst for Americans for Prosperity. He receives email at