The benefits of a high-quality education provide the foundation of the American Creed.
Arizona’s responsibility for meeting that need is embedded deeply and is the primary reason we have state institutions that oversee our public education system. Funding this need takes up a larger portion of every tax dollar paid than any other function of government.
So, why does the need to educate some children garner much more funding than the need to help others reach their potential?
Arizona has an incredibly efficient education system. As a state, we spend less per pupil than almost any other state or industrialized nation. But averages can be misleading. While per pupil expenditures come in at a modest $12,331, some districts receive as much as three and a half times that much per student. In other words, there are highly funded districts and there are poorly funded districts in Arizona, in a system where funding is supposed to be equal.
Unfortunately, my school district falls into the category of poorly funded districts. Our average per pupil rate is $8,778, $27,696 less than the highest funded district in the state. Everybody knows the difference between a $9,000 car and a $36,000 car. But, we don’t expect to see differences when we give some kids an education worth three times as much as others, every year. Over the course of their education my students will get shorted $360,048 in educational value compared to other students in Arizona. That shows in their teachers salaries, their classroom supplies, and the extracurricular activities they can participate in each day.
Arizona’s leaders have been talking about the need to address the inadequacies of our education funding for decades. From Proposition 301 in 2000, to Proposition 208 in 2020, Arizona’s voters have approved measures to add dollars to K-12 education. There are currently proposals being developed at the Arizona Legislature to add hundreds of millions of dollars to school budgets. There is broad bipartisan support for adding dollars, yet there is tremendous resistance to fixing the inequities in the system that distributes these dollars to local school districts.
Arizona’s current school funding formula ensures students in some districts and charter schools get less dollars and resources than students in other districts. Protecting the elements of the formula that contribute to those inequities is important to many districts.
Some districts pay their teachers more, ensure smaller class-sizes and have more programs and support for students through voter approved overrides. When voters can give the school up to 10 cents more on every dollar the state provides while still enjoying low tax rates they should do just that. But, other voters would face the highest tax rates in the state if they did the same thing. The difference isn’t the kids and it isn’t the level of commitment the parents have to their child’s future. The difference is the value of the assessed property in the district. This is an unfair system and adding more money to this system won’t fix the equity issue.
Simple student funding reform can address these issues. Representative Michelle Udall is familiar with the issues facing Arizona’s schools, and she has worked to develop a proposal to make the system much fairer by adjusting some elements of the school funding formula that contribute to inequities. It gives schools that can not expect voters to blow up their tax bill the opportunity to send their children to schools funded on the same formula used by charter schools.
When I was a teacher, I recognized that the best way to bring up a student’s grade average was to identify the scores they did poorest on and target them for improvement. When it comes to Arizona’s low education funding, we need to not just add more money to the pot but remove the inequities causing some schools to operate with very poorly funded budgets.
For a district like mine this means an opportunity to increase funding by 15 percent. Money that will ensure facilities built 80 years ago can be updated, teachers can be paid at levels that support retention in the profession, and students will have more experienced teachers and better programs to support their growth and learning. It means our parents will know their children are getting the same quality education found elsewhere in Arizona.
Lastly, for Arizona it means coming closer to meeting the commitment of our founders who recognized the responsibility to educate every child as the primary responsibility of state government and local school boards. Simple steps that are long overdue can make a tremendous difference.
Sean E. Rickert is the superintendent of the Pima Unified School District in Graham County. He has worked with rural school groups at the state and national levels to improve the quality of education provided to children in rural districts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.