An Abbott and Costello Routine: Who’s on …49th?

By Jonathan Butcher

This is how I imagine legendary comedians Abbott and Costello would discuss public education:

     Costello: I want to help public schools. Which state is last in education funding?

     Abbott: That’s Utah, but Idaho falls close behind.

      Costello: Wait, so Idaho’s behind? That makes them last.

      Abbott: No, Idaho’s almost last. But Oklahoma says they’re second-to-last, too. And Florida and Arizona.

     Costello: So who’s behind who?

      Abbott: They’re all behind.

      Costello: You’re not telling me who’s last but who’s not last?

      Abbott: There’s no competition for last, but five are almost last, 49th.

      Costello: Idaho, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona…that’s four.

      Abbott: North Carolina makes five.

      Costello: But I thought there were four.

      Abbott: Now there are five. But there used to be 8.

      Costello: Eight states are last?

      Abbott: No, 8 states are next-to-last: 49th.

      Costello: But now there are 4?

      Abbott: Five.

      Costello: So who’s last?

      Abbott: No, Who’s on first…

Various states and media outlets have been essentially parroting Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” routine this way for years. Since 2007, local media in five states have named their state “49th” in education funding. In 2005, eight states were crowned 49th. While we all argue over who is second-to-last in funding, we ignore the larger problem: Despite decades of increasing education funding, student achievement is no higher today than it was 40 years ago. In Arizona, real per-student funding more than doubled between 1969-70 and 2008-09, but test scores are flat.

Competition to be named next-to-last in education funding distracts from real education reform. Voters should reject the education union’s initiative to raise Arizona’s sales tax and instead demand reforms that give all parents the power to choose the best educational experience for their child. That will help put Arizona on first.

Jonathan Butcher is Education Director for the Goldwater Institute.

Learn more:

Abbott and Costello: “Who’s on first?” from The Naughty Nineties

The Idaho Statesman: “Idaho 49th in Education Spending

Tulsa World: “In Oklahoma, support for children lacking; study says state ranks 49th

Orlando Sentinel: “Florida cheap on education spending”

The Avery Journal: “N.C. per-pupil spending drops to 49th in U.S.

East Valley Tribune: “Census report: Arizona ranks 49th in per-pupil education spending

Arizona Republic: “Rankings cloud real school indicators


  1. And, as usual, the Goldwater institute doesn’t have a constructive solution to the problem. I do. You won’t like it, Get rid of local control, merge all the school districts into a single district statewide, and cut 95 percent of the administrative staff. Extend the school day by 2 hours, and get rid of the summer holiday. Add an extra year to high school. Make everybody take 5 years of math, introducing calculus in tenth grade, Add five years if science, 5 years of foreign language, 5 years of english composition, 5 years of literature, 5 years if history, and 2 electives. That is probably enough to propell us to best in class status. Unfortunately, nobody has the discipline to make it happen.

  2. Is it true that part of the disconnect in spending is the way that state funds their special education programs? That AZ looks to be close to the bottom, only because special education is funded separately, and therefore the overall spending looks lower than other states that report all education funds together? Trying to confirm something that I’d heard.

  3. Arizona already has more extensive school choice than any other state in the nation. Continuing to prescribe that particular medicine, when the patient is clearly not responding, is malpractice. Why do students not learn enough? Because teachers don’t teach well enough? Why is that? Because teacher salaries are fixed by government and not allowed to flow with the labor market. Goldwater should step up and take a stand for allowing school districts to compete for teaching talent and deliver the best quality of education possible, instead of calling for more choice of a government controlled monopoly labor market. School choice without unfettered access to salary choice, in combination with efficient and effective, market based approaches to accountability, is the only way to go. New strategies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on micromanaging data systems is a huge waste of money. Study the labor markets that compete for teaching talent, and you will arrive at the root cause of the Nation’s learning challenge. Unions and conservatives are jointly complicit in protecting the monopolistic labor market and this cabal must be shattered before any progress can take root. Stop being corporate shills on education, GWI, and call for real change.

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