"Look over there!" our Republican state legislators keep telling us. "Pay no attention to the worst per capita budget crisis in the country. Save the incandescent light bulb! Allow guns at state universities! Take away benefits from anyone who buys a beer!"
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our "Look-over-there!" Legislature. The Republican majority continues to waste its time on frivolous bills that have everything to do with diverting our attention from the state's problems, and nothing to do with pulling Arizona out of our budget tailspin.
The right-wing lawmakers who run our state government have slashed money for our children's educations. They've taken away people's health care, closed our state parks, closed highway rest stops (we made the front page of the New York Times for that one) … but they still don't have a reasonable plan to stop the state from tumbling toward bankruptcy. Instead, they try to distract us by pumping out a steady stream of inane bills, one after the other.
It's like a man saying to his wife, "I know the house is on fire, honey, but let's go out to dinner and a movie to take our minds off it."
One of the latest bits of legislative inanity is the 65 percent Solution bill. The idea is to mandate that school districts spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction.
I have to admit, this bill has a purpose, but it's not to improve public education. The purpose is to blame school districts for wasting money so Republicans can justify cutting more from the education budget, even though we're already at the bottom of the nation in the amount we spend per student.
"Look over there! It's those lazy, fat cat administrators who are ruining our children's educations! There's plenty of money if they'd only put more of it in the classroom!"
The problem is, while "65 percent in the classroom" sounds good as a slogan, it's close to meaningless in the schools.
The fact is, very little of Arizona school districts' non-classroom money goes to administration – only 9 percent, according to the state's Auditor General, two points lower than thee national average. (Our charter schools, by comparison, spend more than twice as much on administration as district schools — a whopping 21 percent — while spending 8 percent less in the classroom.)
The rest of districts' non-classroom money goes to things like: Keeping school buildings warm in the winter and cool the rest of the year; running buses to carry kids from home to school and back again; providing food services; supporting children's educational and personal needs with staff like librarians, nurses and counselors.
Many of those are fixed costs which can't be cut. And librarians, nurses and counselors have been slashed to the bone in districts across the state.
Fixed costs are like your house and car payments. If your salary is cut, you can't lower those costs. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, you end up cutting back on things like food and clothing for yourself and your children.
It's the same with schools. The less money they have, the more of it has to go to cover fixed, outside-the-classroom expenses. When they need to make cuts, they have to cram a few more kids into already crowded classrooms and use those worn out, out-of-date textbooks one more year.
And that's the irony of those anti-public-school legislators, the ones who continue to cut money for our children's educations, telling us to raise the percent we spend in the classroom. The less we spend overall, the higher the percentage that goes to cover outside-the-classroom expenses and the less that goes for teachers and textbooks.
If these people were serious about raising the percent of our education dollar going into the classroom, they would admit the truth: the only way to do it is to invest in our children's future by increasing what we spend on their educations.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.