A 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities names Arizona as one of four states that have cut school funding by more than 15 percent since the 2008 recession. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Arizona’s spending has dropped below the state’s 2008 spending level by 17.5 percent; only Oklahoma and Alabama rank lower. The Education Law Center’s 2015, Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card grants Arizona an “F” in effort—spending considered in the context of the state’s fiscal capacity—and reports that Arizona’s school funding can be described as providing, “low revenue at the same level to districts regardless of poverty.”
It is in this context that a deal was approved last week by both houses of Arizona’s legislature. The agreement, signed by Governor Doug Ducey last Friday, is intended to settle the appeal in the school funding lawsuit, Cave Creek v. Ducey. It is definitely not perfect: it restores only 70 percent of what many had hoped for and it must be approved by voters at the polls on May 17, 2016.
The Associated Press reports: “Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a package of bills Friday that will pump $3.5 billion into K-12 education over the next decade to settle a long-running lawsuit stemming from the state’s decision to raid school spending during the Great Recession… A voter-approved referendum in Arizona has long required lawmakers to provide annual inflation-based increases to K-12 education, but the state Legislature quit making the payments when the recession hit and decimated the housing and construction industries that had been the lynchpin of the state economy. Lawmakers also made other major cuts—and the spending plan signed by Ducey doesn’t come close to restoring them.”
We’re talking desperately needed money for public schools. According to the AP, “The settlement cash comes from $1.4 billion in general fund money and $2 billion from a state land trust… Schools will receive $3.9 billion in the current budget year from the state general fund, including $3.4 billion in basic school aid. The bills approved Friday would add about $300 million a year to that total.”
Fernanda Santos reports for the NY Times, “Despite recent infusions of cash, many school districts are still struggling to pay for their most basic needs, like new textbooks. Some schools also need additional teachers to handle a surge in enrollment driven primarily by a rise in the number of Latino students, who at 44 percent are already the largest ethnic group in the state’s public education system. An analysis by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, released in August, showed the state’s current budget for K-12 schools at $3,437 per student—still 19.2 percent lower than it was in 2005, when adjusted for inflation.”
The agreement is a compromise and far from ideal, as it includes caps on future school spending. The Associated Press adds that the agreement will increase withdrawals from the state’s permanent land trust from 2.5 percent to 7 percent a year. Democrats who opposed the plan warned that it may put the land trust fund at risk.
There are, of course, people who deride school funding lawsuits because, they claim, money doesn’t matter. Across the states, these critics contend, test scores have failed to rise over time even as the investment in education has significantly grown. David Berliner and Gene Glass dismiss this myth with some facts in their book 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “(S)pending has approximately doubled over the past 4 decades. The problem is that without context it is too easy to conclude that all that money has been poured into the general education system. In fact, less than half of that money has gone to regular education. Instead, a very large portion of the increased funding has gone into special education. Rather than institutionalizing children with disabilities, we are now supporting them as students in our public schools.” (p. 172)
Berliner and Glass continue: “The big picture is clear: when we compare school districts that have sufficient resources with those that do not, we see that achievement outcomes are definitively higher in the former… Does it make a difference in terms of student achievement to hire teachers that cost more because they are more experienced and better educated?… Does it make a difference to hire more teachers so that class sizes can be reduced and kept low? Does it make a difference to provide social supports so that high-needs students can learn to the best of their ability? We know with a good deal of certainty that the answer to these questions is a resounding ‘Yes.'” (p. 173)
It is to be hoped that at the polls next May the people of Arizona will approve the new school funding agreement to provide desperately needed dollars in this state that has ranked near the bottom nationally in its investment in public education.