Sure, Arizona schools should be better funded. That’s a no brainer. But why should I have to pay for it? This seems to be the attitude of many Arizonans, at least according to a recent Morrison Institute poll. The problem with this kind of thinking is that even though many people acknowledge that we need to invest in school resources, hire more school counselors and staff, and pay teachers more (see my last blog), it will not happen until most are willing to help fund schools themselves.
Once their children graduate from high school, some Arizona residents have suggested they should no longer have to pay taxes to support education. Those who never had (or intend to have) children may feel similarly. Senior citizens who have moved from a high-tax, high-quality-education state (where their children attended public schools) to Arizona – in part because of its lower tax rates for income and property – may resent the idea of paying more to contribute to the education of other people’s children. And those who live in one area, might be willing to pay more taxes to support schools in that specific district through bonds and budget overrides (because even if they do not have kids, good schools improve property values), but less willing to pay more to improve schools across the state. To top it off, families can even remove their “tax credit” dollars from the general pool and donate these specifically to their children’s school. If it doesn’t directly benefit my family, why should I pay for better education?
But all of these groups – and truly everyone in the state – would ultimately benefit from better funded schools. Because the better we fund schools, the better student outcomes we get – both for academics and life. And today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens, employees, doctors, and policymakers. So better school funding = better business, a stronger economy, better health outcomes for everyone, and happier citizens.
I have heard business owners here complain that they are having a hard time finding enough qualified workers, especially for higher-level jobs. In fact, numerous companies have decided not to locate here because they were concerned about finding local talent. Or they were worried about their ability to convince current employees with children to move to a state with an education system that consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation in measures of quality. As a result, Arizona is home to many low-wage industries (such as call centers), but not enough high-skill, high-wage industries. In fact, it is possible that up to a third of jobs here could be replaced by automation in coming years. Although it may seem like we are thriving right now, these factors make our state particularly vulnerable to future recession. And we should not forget that during the most recent recession, Arizona indeed suffered a great deal more than other states and rebounded a lot slower. Economic downturns like this hurt all of us. Our only inoculation against such vulnerability is strengthening our education system.
A better education system now could also save your life later. Senior citizens will have increasing need for good healthcare as they age, but as it is, Arizona does not have enough primary care doctors or healthcare workers. With life expectancies on the rise, most of these citizens will live well into their 80s. They will need today’s students to be the ones occupying healthcare roles. But Arizonans are becoming less-educated, less-trained – with only 17% of current 9th graders on the path toward college graduation. How can we expect to educate enough future doctors at this rate? Enough biologists, nurses, lab technicians? We need to start better funding our education system now so that we can care for our citizens in the future.
And what about the human cost to the children in the system right now? Doesn’t every single child – regardless of race, class, or neighborhood – deserve to benefit from teachers who are capable and caring, textbooks that are engaging and up-to-date, buildings that are safe and functional, and counselors that have time for them? Doesn’t every child in this state deserve the same chance at creating a life that brings them happiness? A recent study indicated that school districts serving mostly white students in Arizona get, on average, $7,613 more per-student than those serving mostly students of color. This disparity is much greater than most states in the nation. Our educational playing field here is not great to begin with, but this inequality makes it even worse. This is what happens when we are only willing to pay to increase school funding in our district or school. When instead of seeing our shared humanity, and the value of every soul in this state, we only look out for our own family. Such short-sightedness will hurt us all in the end, for the reasons enumerated above, but also because happier, better-educated citizens are less likely to commit crimes or require social services. Happier citizens make a better society.
The children in all of our schools today are the future of this state. They are the ones who will vote in future elections, who will win future elections, who will work for and serve the people of Arizona. They are us in 10, 20, 30 years. We owe them a good education. And we all benefit when our education system prepares more knowledgeable, skilled, thoughtful and principled adults. So when you commit to paying your share to better fund our education system, don’t think of it as throwing money away, because it’s not. Think of it as making a deposit in the bank of Arizona’s future. A deposit that will bear the greatest possible dividends for years to come.