Patterson: Arizona schools need consumer-driven change, not more funding - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Patterson: Arizona schools need consumer-driven change, not more funding

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East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired physician and former state senator.

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2012 6:30 am | Updated: 3:27 pm, Thu Dec 13, 2012.

Do you remember how test scores improved after Gov. Hull’s education tax passed a decade ago? Did you see how passage of Gov. Brewer’s temporary sales tax increase two years ago resulted in better performing schools? Me neither.

But help is on the way. The Arizona Education Network is promising that “once in a great while Arizona citizens have the opportunity to do something truly transformational for the trajectory of our state.” Wow, sounds impressive, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, they’re just kidding. This time it’s not even a new dedicated tax, just a continuation of the two-year old one cent sales tax increase that we were solemnly promised would be temporary.

These temporary fiscal fixes are getting tiresome. The feds in recent years have become enamored with payroll tax holidays, one time Social Security bonuses and time-limited tax cuts. These shenanigans are just clever ploys to get the political credit for something popular while avoiding the long-term consequences.

But they’re lousy economics. They introduce more uncertainty and they’re hard to get rid of when the time comes. Arizona’s temporary sales tax is more of the same.

The taxers told us in 2010 that we needed this tax to get past our little recession and then it would go away. But you didn’t really believe that did you? It was obviously just a way to garner votes.

They didn’t want you to know that it is actually a 17.8 percent increase in the state sales tax. And while tax advocates always talk about how piddling each proposal is (“no more than a Starbucks each week”), the total state tax load adds up and makes a difference.

California is the poster child. The political culture there for the past few decades supported ramped-up spending and taxing. But now they’re in deep trouble as the productive classes flee the state. Meanwhile the takers, legal and illegal, move in, and government unions live high on the hog. Several cities have declared bankruptcy and state government may not be far behind. Why go even one more step down that path?

But if our schools need help, Arizonans are inclined to respond. We know our schools should be better. In spite of a few success islands, overall achievement scores really haven’t budged and nearly three-fourths of our fourth-graders are unable to read at grade level.

It simply doesn’t wash to say that our lack of success is due to lack of funding. Inflation adjusted per-pupil spending climbed 104 percent in the last 40 years. What did we get for our money? Mostly more bureaucrats, and better off education retirees.

The massive spending increase didn’t make class sizes any smaller. In fact, the percentage of funding getting into the classroom today is the lowest since auditors have been tracking it. What we also didn’t get was any overall improvement in academic achievement, especially for those at the bottom of the ladder.

Here’s some real transformation for you. Let’s eliminate school districts. Districts at one time made sense as geographic monopolies for public education, charged with building and administering schools. But they’re useless anachronisms today, when education is moving to a diverse, consumer-driven market. Top-down administration doesn’t cut it anymore.

Charter schools, which dominate the list of top performing schools in the state, are living proof that successful schools need districts like fish need skates. District bureaucracies soak up a lot of funds and contribute little if any value.

Here’s more real transformation: Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (also referred to as education savings accounts), now limited to a few students in special categories, are an Arizona-based reform with huge potential. Parents are given stipends to use for educational spending of their choice in lieu of sending their children to a district school. Funds can be used for tuition, tutoring, instructional materials or even college savings.

Hundreds of young lives are being turned around when parents can select the best of the opportunities available. Why shouldn’t all of Arizona’s students have access to that same opportunity?

Embracing change and focusing on what works for students? Yes! More funding for the same old results? No, not again!

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