The High Cost of Education Reform

The Republican revolution has a cure for the troubles of primary education in America, and it can be summarized in one word: competition.

After more than a decade of dubious reform efforts, conservative Republicans are looking to change public schools from without, rather than from within. Their proposals have shiny names that are sound-bite-friendly--open enrollment, vouchers, charter schools. They champion the concept of parental choice.

Under the Republican vision, government would pay for a child's education through high school, but parents would choose who provides the education. There would still be a public school system. But parents also would be able to move their children, and the government funding for their children's education, to other schools.

It is the market pressure from these alternative schools that, GOP reformers say, should force public education to improve. And if public schools don't improve, they would lose more and more of their students and funding.

Along with his counterparts in Wisconsin and Michigan, and with the support of his party's congressional leadership, Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III has been in the forefront of market-based education reform.

"It's time for charter schools; it's time for open enrollment; it's time for parental-choice grants and decentralization of the bureaucracy," he said in his 1994 State of the State address.

Although the state Legislature rejected Symington's school-voucher proposal--government funds for children who attend private school--Arizona has embarked on an ambitious variant of the voucher program: charter schools. And Symington stepped up his pro-choice, antibureaucracy crusade this year, calling for abolition of the state Department of Education--even though it is headed by one of his Republican allies.

The lackluster performance of public schools has boosted the intuitive appeal of market-based education reform. Yet Arizona's experience with the education revolution provides reason for caution and even skepticism.

A two-month review of state and local documents, combined with interviews of those on the front lines of educating Arizona's children, shows that, as state leaders talk of fundamental reform, their policies are pushing the existing system of public education to the brink of financial crisis.

The key elements in this impending education crisis are:
* A level of state funding for public education that, when inflation and population increases are taken into account, translates into significant reductions in state support.

* A startling shift of the tax burden for public education from the state to local school districts. In many school districts, this has resulted in large local tax increases.

* An equally dramatic shift in the tax bases of school districts. This shift has given major businesses huge school tax cuts, while increasing taxes for homeowners even above the levels that would be needed to replace diminished state aid.

* An explosion of school-district debt. A significant portion of this new debt is now being used to fund day-to-day school operations, meaning that tomorrow's money is being used to teach today's students.

* A refusal by the state to deal with unconstitutional inequalities in the school finance mechanism, despite evidence that thousands of children are attending substandard--even dangerous--schools.

There may come a sunny day when Arizona's parents will be able to choose from a wide variety of good schools, kept on their toes by free-market competition. Yet most of the educational reforms espoused by the Symington administration are, at this point, little more than theories. They remain untested on a large scale.

And many educational professionals worry that, amid the talk of market reform, Arizona's system of public education is approaching financial collapse.

In 1980, Arizona adopted what was widely considered one of the country's most equitable and fiscally sound systems for funding public education.

That system gave each school district a fixed sum for each student and included a formula to account for annual inflation. This state funding augmented property taxes collected by each school district.

Today, the state's school-funding system is wildly out of whack. It does not adequately provide for enrollment growth. And the reality of inflation has been all but ignored by the state during Fife Symington's tenure.

Arizona's funding formula is literally backward. The state doesn't fund schools according to current population, but on the number of students enrolled the previous year.

That funding scheme does not take into account the 3 percent growth in statewide student population that occurred during each of the past five years. Some districts have grown as much as 54 percent during that time, yet the dollars to educate the new students always came a year too late.

And, as enrollments swelled, state GOP leaders waved a magic wand and decreed that schools were somehow impervious to inflation. Under Symington, Arizona has never fully funded the cost of inflation for public schools. Last year, the Legislature, with the governor's blessing, eliminated inflation from the school-funding formula altogether.