Politics & Policy

Tax and Teach?

Throwing money at Arkansas public education hasn't helped.

The Arkansas legislature is now holding a special session, during which debate has centered not on whether to increase taxes, but rather over exactly which taxes should be raised. The scramble to hike taxes comes in response to some creative legal interpretations handed down by the state supreme court, which in 2002 upheld a lower court’s ruling that the state’s school-funding mechanism is “inadequate” and “inequitable.”

To date, Governor Huckabee and the Democrat-controlled legislature have mostly been playing a numbers game rather than airing substantive differences. Huckabee wants to hike the sales tax from 5.125 percent to 6.125 percent while some in the legislature want to expand the sales tax to services, raise income taxes, hike the capital gains tax, or some combination of the four. Neither Huckabee nor many in the legislature have questioned whether more education spending will really lead to better-educated kids and economic growth. They should know better from experience.

Arkansas taxpayers have been through the raise-taxes-in-exchange-for-education-and-economic-improvement routine before. In 1983, then-Governor Bill Clinton sold a tax increase for education as the way to improve the state’s economy and end the state’s days of being second-poorest in the nation. Twenty years later, the state still lags in 49th place in per-capita income and the state’s leaders are on the verge of passing another tax increase in a futile attempt to improve education — and, by extension, the state’s economy — without making the hard reforms necessary to improve Arkansas schools.

According to Arkansans for Education Reform, over the past three and a half decades, Arkansas’s education spending has grown from nearly $154 million (1965) to $2.8 billion (2002) in nominal dollars. When adjusted for inflation, this change is a 232 percent increase in 2002 dollars. However, student-enrollment trends in Arkansas have stayed relatively flat since 1975 (at approximately 450,000 students per year).

Instead of ensuring that the children of Arkansas receive the best educations possible, data indicate that funding increases have been used to create a job-security racket for the state’s teachers and education-related state employees. In fact, between 1965 and 2002, the number of teachers in public education has increased from 17,404 to 33,509. This increase in public-education teachers has lowered the teacher-student ratios from one teacher for every 22.4 students in 1965 to one teacher for every 13.37 students in 2002.

In addition, non-teaching personnel levels (i.e., support staff, teacher aides, counselors, librarians, administration staff, etc.) have increased at a higher rate (80 percent) than the increase in public-education teachers during this same time period.

Unfortunately, in spite of this dramatic reduction in class size and a dramatic upswing in specialized personnel, student performance has not improved. Over the past 15 years, national test scores for Arkansas students have remained relatively flat and nearly 60 percent of students at Arkansas public colleges and universities need one or more remedial courses because they did not effectively learn the basics prior to entering college.

The Arkansas Chamber of Commerce — an organization not averse to tax hikes — has been among the leading voices in favor of restoring “accountability” to the state’s education system. In recent testimony, Chamber president Stacy Pittman told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Revenue and Tax committees that the Chamber would support increasing taxes only in exchange for increased student testing, and efforts by the state to hold school districts more accountable for meeting education standards.

Rather than focusing on how to increase funding for the public schools, Gov. Huckabee and Republicans in the legislature should be making the case that not another dime of additional taxpayer money should go to the K-12 system until real reforms are introduced — like vouchers, educational choice tax credits, expanded charter schools, more emphasis on accountability, and pay-for-performance in the education system. According to the Arkansas Policy Foundation, administrative restructuring alone would save $20 million annually.

Increasing taxes will not lead to better schools. In order for students to better learn their lessons in the classrooms of Arkansas, the state’s leaders need to take to heart the lessons taught 20 years ago.

— Paul J. Gessing is director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. He can be contacted at 108 N. Alfred St., Alexandria, Va. 22314.

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