The Folly of Education Budgets

Doug Ducey, Governor of Arizona, has proposed significant budget cuts to education–both higher education and K-12–but increased fundings for prisons. He will also enact a tax cut that his predecessor Governor Jan Brewer did not enact because she had the wisdom to recognize that cutting education was hardly a vehicle for building a health society. In Governor Ducey’s priorities, we see the priorities of the new Republican leadership of Arizona. Emphasizing incarceration over education is bad policy and not an effective economic development strategy. Keeping tax cuts, which have been proven not to generate economic development, while making cuts to education only underscores the problems.   Ironically, the “pro-business”  Governor Ducey has even cut funds from the state’s economic development offices, including tourism.

Lets start by highlighting the folly of spending more on prisons. Across the spectrum, from conservatives to progressives there has emerged recognition that harsh penal regimens in the US have only fueled a prison-industrial complex that has become a huge lag on state (and federal budgets.) Read the conservative case against more prison spending.  Second, in Arizona, some of the state’s leading conservatives, such as Joe Apaio, have argued that the increase in prison spending is wasteful and unnecessary.

Turning to education. Just how much does Arizona’s spend on education, relative to other states? Presently, Arizona spends $8000 per K-12  student in Arizona ranks its spending among the lowest five states in the United States, according to the US Census. Some folks think this is plenty, but they have not a clue about the costs of education (and do not publish dissenting comments.) Regardless, the Governor’s policies are undermining the ability of districts to meet the basic needs of students, and this will even hurt Charter Schools which receive state funding. Also, the Governor’s policy have ignored a court ruling against the state of Arizona in terms of how it funds K-12 education, which only moves a potentially more dramatic budget challenge further down the road–hardly good leadership.

As for spending on higher education and prisons. Gov. Ducey proposes a budget of $1B to house 42,000+ inmates in correctional facilities, but about $720M for the state’s three universities, serving more than 130,000 students.  You do the math. Which is the better investment? Put this in a broader national perspective, and we see the crisis writ large. Spending more for prisoners than for K-12 students (check out this graphic!) is crazy and ill-advised.

Broadly, evidence strongly supports that education funding spurs economic development, although not all economists agree precisely on the degree to which this is true, or on the ways this should occur.  Thus, it goes without saying that if a state doesn’t fund education, either at the K-12 or University level, it will hurt the ability of business to succeed and we’ll see further steady erosion of the state’s economy.  Furthermore, business and economies do not thrive in places that emphasize prison over education, especially where prison funding continues to increase (as this is a public-funding priority that is even harder to back away from than education.  And, surely investing in prisons over schools is not “reform” as Governor Ducey claims.

If we turn to higher education spending, we learn that Arizona once spent over $1B on its three publicly funding state universities, a number that has diminished to less than $750 and will be cut further. This has led to increases in tuition costs for students–including especially Arizona residents who are promised a free or nearly free state education by the the Arizona Constitution. Regardless, it has led to a gutting of the universities, which have responded by becoming more innovative and lean. It has also revealed how fortunate that Arizona is to have excellent leadership on the Board of Regents and at the state’s University, but leadership can only go so far in dampening the continued impact of irresponsible fiscal stewardship by Arizona’s governors.

There is a clear benefit to a college degree for individuals. Higher education generates excellent outcomes–this is true every in the US (and world), and in states, such as Arizona. These outcomes are what we want for our children and our communities, so it makes sense that Governor Ducey should support such outcomes. Incidentally, even critics of greater funding for publicly funded higher education by state governments point out the benefits of higher education for individuals, noting that individuals with higher education earn more, are  more productive (economically). This reveals a real problem for Governor Ducey’s polices: slashing state budgets for higher education could well lead to higher costs for students, less quality in terms of educational outcomes, or make Arizona’s universities less competitive with nearby or nationwide Universities.  All of these outcomes harm the citizens of Arizona, as well as work against the state’s economic development prospects (to a greater or less degree, depending on your perspective.)

Finally, funding education has value, beyond its impact on economic development. It produces a more informed citizenry, capable of engaging the ideals and values of a democratic society; it produces individuals whose education allows them to live better and more informed lives. The notion that knowledge, culture, art, and democratic values are public goods dates to the earliest foundations of the American democracy and Western social, cultural, and political thought–all of which are vital to who we are as Americans and citizens of Arizona.

Governor Ducey’s attitudes appear to be in line with those of other Republican leaders, including Presidential hopeful Scott Walker of Wisconsin, so perhaps he has already expanded his sights beyond the state to national political office. Regardless, families and communities should tell Gov. Ducey to get his spending priorities straight, to fund those services that benefit the state’s businesses and its law-abiding residents.


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