Friday, March 5, 2010

Is Arizona the Jamaica of the USA?

Even before the current recession and multi-billion-dollar shortfalls in the Arizona budget, this state's funding for education was at or near the bottom, compared with other states in the US. Comparing 1986-87 fiscal year with 2006-07, Arizona actually spent less per student in 2007 than it did in 1987, when the figures are adjusted for inflation. Nationwide, per student funding went up by 35% during that time frame.

Fast forward to fiscal year 2009-10, and we find Republican Governor Jan Brewer and the Republican-controlled Legislature cutting millions of dollars from K-12 and university education. This resulted in larger classrooms and lower pay for teachers. For 2010-11 fiscal year, they're threatening even more cuts to education. Arizona is already competing for dead last in the state rankings for education. How low can we go?

Today, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story (linked here) comparing schools in Jamaica with those in Barbados. These two countries are similar in location, climate, history, and government structure but very different in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. This is the measure of all goods and services a country produces divided by its population.

Barbados has a much higher GDP than Jamaica. Consequently, Barbados spends considerably more money on its educational system than Jamaica. What is the result of this discrepancy in funding? To answer this question, the NPR reporter interviewed two school principals--one in Jamaica and the other in Barbados.

In Jamaica, the school system is grossly underfunded. Teachers buy their own supplies, and the system doesn't even have enough high schools for all of the students. Students are required to take a high school entrance exam. Those who do well on the exam are admitted to a traditional high school and have the opportunity to progress to a university. Those who do poorly on the exam are shunted to a non-traditional high school which prepares them for low-wage, non-skilled work. Discouraged, Jamaicans who have been assigned to the non-traditional schools often turn to other means of support to increase their income; this includes the drug trade and other illegal activities, according to NPR. The principal said that if she just had one extra teacher per class to work on reading that it could make all the difference in the students' lives, since 25% of Jamaica's sixth graders can't read.

The Barbados government has a higher GDP and, therefore, more money to invest in education. As a result, Barbados has a modern, fully-funded school system with modern, well-equipped classrooms and plenty of teachers. Every sixth grader in Barbados can read.

As Arizona's Republican-controlled government prepares to cut millions more from the education budget, we must ask ourselves three questions. Is Arizona the Jamaica of the USA? What will be the long-term impact of these short-sighted policies? Who are you going to vote for in the fall?

This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.

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