Cronkite News – Arizona PBS

Census: Arizona continued to lag far behind U.S. on school spending

Police shut down streets temporarily, with Red For Ed marchers filling them sidewalk to sidewalk as they moved toward the capitol. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – New Census Bureau figures show that per-pupil spending in Arizona’s public schools was fourth-lowest in the nation in 2017, hampering the state’s efforts in recent years to improve education funding.

The report this week said Arizona spent $8,003 per student in fiscal 2017, well below the national average of $12,200 that year and just more than one-quarter the $23,091 spent per student in New York, the highest in the country. Only Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho ranked lower than Arizona.

The state’s ranking came despite the fact that Arizona increased its school spending from fiscal 2016 to 2017 at a faster rate than the nation, with school spending in the state rising by 5.1% compared to a national average of 3.7% that year.

Arizona educators and government officials said the state is heading in the right direction, but they were not surprised by the ranking.

“The District Additional Assistance funding has been diluted for so many years now, and we’re trying to increase that amount and move forward with teacher salaries,” said Heidi Vega, communications director for the Arizona School Boards Association. “But we still need more funding in our classrooms and for other things like social workers, nurses and counselors.”

The District Additional Assistance, which provides funding for textbooks, curriculum, technology, school buses and some capital funding, has been partially suspended since 2009, according to the Arizona Education Association’s website.

It is one of several areas of school spending that Gov. Doug Ducey has targeted for increases in his proposed fiscal 2020 budget, which includes $164.7 million to give teachers a 5% raise. That would be the second installment on a 20% salary increase by 2020 that was promised last year when teachers staged #RedForEd rallies across the state.

The budget also includes $136 million to restore recession-era cut and $87.8 million for school buildings, according to Ducey’s office. It said that school spending has increased by $2.7 billion since Ducey took office in 2015, an increase in per-pupil spending of 25% in that period.

Ducey’s budget request calls for $5.6 billion in state funds for education, according to published reports, up from the $3.5 billion the Census said the state spent on schools in fiscal 2017.

Vega said those increases are vital, but there are issues beyond funding that prevent children from getting an equitable opportunity, and they need to be addressed.

“Right now, we see that there are gaps in Arizona,” she said, pointing to the high number of Latinos in Arizona schools. “Many times just looking at achievement scores, we’re being segregated by socioeconomics.”

Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona State Department of Education, said the state is moving in the right direction, but he says Arizona schools will not be able to make that jump right away without large amounts of funding.

“This is why the superintendent ran for office, so we can see more dedicated revenue streams,” Swiat said.

He said Arizona has ranked in the bottom four states for per-pupil spending for at least the past five years, and that “Superintendent Kathy Hoffman is adamant about restoring prerecession rankings.”

Vega said it helps that Hoffman “is working collaboratively with advocates and associations to get people together to close these gaps and help our children succeed.”

“We want to ensure that we use that voice among other to work with our legislators,” she said.

But Misty Arthur, executive director of the Arizona Federation of Teachers, said the state still has a long way to go, and advocates can’t relax now.

“We’re far behind where we were even 10 years ago,” Arthur said. “We need to be diligent, to not settle and fight for our students.”