A decade after recession, Arizona schools still suffer from budget cuts

Like many states, Arizona was forced to cut school budgets when recession hit. But a new report says the state is still being hurt by a lack of school funding, with the steepest drops since the recession started. (Photo by Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

WASHINGTON – When Pinnacle High School physics teacher Mike Vargas needed motion sensors so his freshman students could engage in a special experiment, he didn’t look to his school board for funding.

Vargas instead turned to Donors Choose, a crowdfunding network for public school teachers to get books, classroom supplies or materials for report released Thursday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

State funding per pupil in Arizona is down 36.6 percent since the start of the Great Recession, reductions that have been compounded by additional cuts to the income tax rate in subsequent years.

The center report said Arizona is one of just five states with both deep reductions in general school funding and an income tax cut, which has hindered a recovery in school budgets even though the recession officially ended in June 2009.

“Arizona is a good example of a state that was hit particularly hard by the great recession,” said Mike Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But now Arizona has exacerbated the problem by responding to the recession in a very unbalanced way.”

Leachman said the state removed two principal streams of revenue for school districts.

“Nearly half of total education spending in the U.S. comes from state funds, and cuts at the state level means districts have to scale back or raise more local money,” he said. “But when income tax is cut that means the local funding is decreased as well.”

But state Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, defends the choices made by the Legislature.

“We did what had to be done,” said Kavanagh, who was a member of the House of Representatives during the recession. “We had to cut $3.5 billion from a budget that was about $10 billion – and that was no easy feat.”

He said lawmakers did not neglect schools but actively worked to “give individual schools the most flexibility, because … I believe the districts themselves know the best choices for their students.”

The cuts to the state income tax, he said, were another step to speed up the long recovery from the recession.

“When you let individuals and businesses keep their money, it will be used to increase businesses – that means more employees and spending, and individual families will use that extra money in their pocket and it’ll spur more economic growth,” Kavanagh said.

Faced with tighter budgets, the Arizona Department of Education has focused on creativity, pooling resources and “maximizing the value of every dollar,” spokesman Charles Tack said.

“I think it’s easy to look back and say one course of action was bad, but we were facing a pretty unprecedented situation and there were cuts that had to be made,” Tack said.

“I think we could all agree that we don’t like cutting education … but districts did come together and the department found ways to invest in smart and new ways,” he said.

But the authors of the CBPP study concluded that decreases in education spending have long-term negative impacts on state economies.

“America has lost 221,000 teaching and school administrator jobs since 2008,” Leachman said. “These cuts are setting the economy back by laying off educators, decreasing salaries … and also hurting the private sector by limiting district contracts and forcing schools to cut back on buying.”

Tack acknowledged that Arizona has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country, but said “teachers are some of the most resourceful people you’ll ever meet.”

Vargas knows first-hand how inventive teachers have to be if they want to go “above and beyond the call of duty.” After teaching abroad from 2000 to 2012, the Arizona native came home to find “the resources schools can give are drastically, drastically different.”

“It’s honestly like night and day. I never would have had to ask parents and strangers for money before,” he said.

But that’s the norm for teachers in the state today, Vargas said.

“Most teachers I work with expect that you’re going to pay money out of your own pocket for the classroom you want,” Vargas said.

“And that just doesn’t sit right with me,” he said. “Because these are things that school districts used to be able to provide and they should be able to provide.”