Q&A: Why Arizona education funding will always lag

The Arizona Republic
Monday, November 2, 2015
Sean McCarthy


Q&A: Why Arizona education funding will always lag

The Arizona Tax Research Association set out to answer why Arizona consistently ranks worst among states on spending on K-12 education. In a nutshell, what’s the answer?
The statistic can be misleading and is a poor indicator of support for public schools. Per-pupil expenditure rankings are a study in demographics. States whose denominator (pupils) in this equation has grown quickly tend to rank low. All but two of the 13 fastest growing K-12 population states over the last 20 years are in the bottom third of this ranking. The statistic doesn’t account for relative wealth, taxation effort or cost of living.

According to the ATRA study, Arizona’s low ranking is not about to change soon. Why?
Arizona’s pupil growth will continue to outpace most states. U.S. states have and will continue to increase K-12 spending (the numerator), so while Arizona’s spending increases, its relative ranking will not. States with similar wealth and growth history will continue to rank close to Arizona, such as Nevada, Texas, Utah and Idaho.

Why won’t more spending change that ranking?
Our calculations show the roughly $300 million in the proposed school litigation funding increase won’t improve Arizona’s ranking but maybe one position. Even an infusion of $1 billion in new, permanent spending wouldn’t put Arizona in the top 40. There simply isn’t enough money in the economy to significantly improve our ranking.

Do you believe the rankings give a false impression of the state?
Absolutely. K-12 advocates shame policymakers and taxpayers by accusing them of not investing in education. The media cooperates and advances this narrative without examination to the detriment of the state’s image. Worse, they conflate this ranking with student performance to suggest Arizona has the worst schools in the country. This lazy analysis frustrates the ability to focus on reforms within Arizona’s reach.

The report argues that Arizona lawmakers have significantly increased funding for K-12 education. How is that?
Since the Census Bureau began tracking K-12 spending in 1992, Arizona ranks No. 9 in percentage increase in K-12 spending. That’s with the Bureau failing to count charter spending. In nearly every year when state coffers were healthy, K-12 spending increased beyond simple student growth.

ATRA argues it is not possible to raise spending to a level that satisfies schools. Why do you say that?
History. Even when appropriations jumped significantly, taxpayers received no credit. There isn’t a K-12 community in America who believes they are adequately funded. Each state has a statistic which can be marketed as a problem only money can fix. ATRA would prefer policymakers focus on improving its schools, not flagellate itself over a statistic which isn’t changing.

How are Arizona schools doing on outcomes and how does that inform your point of view?
A new Urban Institute study on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores shows strong improvement: Arizona ranked No. 18 in NAEP improvement since 2003. Arizona has pockets of excellence and many areas in need of improvement. Some of our worst schools are in our top funded districts and vice versa. The robust school choice market is providing innovative opportunities and changing attitudes about achievement expectations. ATRA hopes lawmakers equitably match the school-finance formula to this new environment so parents have the same purchasing power wherever they matriculate their student.