Viewpoint: Prison Spending Hurts Education? Not Exactly.

Image courtesy www.arizonaprisonwatch.org
Image courtesy www.arizonaprisonwatch.org

By Robert Robb

The knock on Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget that seems to have gained the most traction is that it shortchanges K-12 education in favor of prisons.

Now, an argument can be made that Arizona underfunds K-12 education. In fact, I’ve made it.

There’s a reasonable discussion to be had about Arizona’s incarceration rates. And certainly, a dollar spent on one thing can’t be spent on another. Budgets are about making choices.

But the claim that Arizona has favored prisons over education is grossly overblown.

Since 2000, annual state spending on corrections has indeed gone up, by 95 percent.

But state spending on K-12 education has also gone up markedly, particularly when the proceeds of Proposition 301, the education sales tax approved by voters in 2000, are included. The recent cutbacks were preceded by some healthy increases. The net is an increase of 76 percent since 2000.

Because of a much bigger spending base, the gross increase in annual spending on education is $1.8 billion, compared to less than $500 million for corrections.

So, there’s not that much of a case to be made that prison spending has crowded out spending on K-12 education.

Ducey proposes contracting with private prisons for 3,000 additional medium-security beds over the next three years. Critics mount two objections: That it is private prisons, which allegedly cost more. And that sentencing reform could reduce the need for additional prison beds.

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