An argument for voting ‘No’ on Prop 208

This is a proposal to raise the top rate of income tax in Arizona by 78% and devote the proceeds to education. Good summaries of the economic arguments are here and here. Very little of the proceeds will reach teachers, anyway, article here. The proceeds will be divided between the district and charter schools according to school population, but most of the money by far will go to the district schools. Most of us, even those without school-age children, are willing to pay for public education, but will the district schools use this money well?

The Arizona Retirement System, its membership mostly teachers at district schools, is dramatically underfunded ($15.6 billion, according to this study by the Reason Foundation). None of the money will go there.

The charter and private schools in our neighborhood have done a much better job re-opening this year than have the district schools. The problems that have had to be solved in order to re-open are the same for charter, private, and district schools, but the district schools have lagged. Their problem is their immensity.

The school districts are enormous compared to the charter and private schools. The three school districts (Tempe Union, Chandler Unified, and Kyrene Elementary, together serving nearly 100,000 students) are all promising to open by Oct 13, if the COVID “metrics” behave. By contrast, Desert Gardens Montessori (enrollment 260, infant-through-grade 12) has been open since June for small children and since August 17 for the older kids. St Timothy’s Catholic school (K-8 and about the same size), has also been open since August 17. Our public charter schools, Tempe Prep (6-12, enrollment 430) and Chandler Prep (K-12, enrollment 725) both opened September 8.

Most activities achieve economies of scale. One might expect the district schools to be able, for example, to buy cheaper textbooks by buying in quantity. Government activities seem not to enjoy economies of scale. The cost to educate a student in the three school districts is not significantly different from the cost in the much smaller charter schools:

schoolgradesenrollmentcosts ($m)cost per student
Chandler School DistrictK-1245,9994008,707
Kyrene School DistrictK-816,68317410,407
Tempe High School District9-1213,3121279,541
Chandler PrepK-1272579,217
Tempe Prep6-1243049,152
(These numbers come from the schools’ regulatory reports for 2019, pre-COVID.)

The price of a year at St Timothy’s Catholic school (K-8, enrollment 260) is $7,500. The smaller schools may actually be more efficient.

A consequence of excessive size, particularly for government organizations, is paralyzed decision-making. Here is a video of the September 16 meeting of the Tempe Union High School governing board. At about the 31 minute mark (after a lengthy presentation of COVID metrics by zip code) you can see the superintendent trying to make a decision on behalf of the entire district. They are unable to consider the possibility of opening some schools earlier than others. At 47:50 president Hodge declares that it would be inequitable to allow students in the southern part of the district to return to school when northern students cannot. No member of the governing board ever moves to challenge that idea, or in any way to discuss how the re-opening process might be sped up.

The effect of excessive size on curriculum is a subject worthy of a separate post, here. Who do you suppose is better educated, a graduate of St Tim’s or a graduate of Kyrene?

Support quality education by voting ‘No’ on Proposition 208. And don’t forget to use the Arizona Tax Credit to support charter and private schools at no cost to you. (See neighboring post.)