WASHINGTON — Arizona was once again among the worst states in the nation for spending per student on K-12 education in 2020, a ranking that advocates said was embarrassing but not surprising.
Figures from a recent Census Bureau report show that Arizona spent $8,785 per student in 2020, ahead of only Utah and Idaho that year. And it was dead last — 51st among the states and the District of Columbia — in the amount spent on actual education, at $4,801 per student.
Both were well below the national average of $13,494 overall and $8,176 in instruction per student for that year.
The data “reflects the Arizona Legislature’s continued failure to appropriately invest in our state’s future,” a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education said in a statement.
But a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey said the numbers “may not paint the full picture of what’s happening in Arizona.” CJ Karamargin said that higher spending does not mean a better education system.
“If spending were a measure of success, then Washington, DC and New York would have the best educated children in the country,” Karamargin said.
Many advocates remain frustrated that the state is historically and “generally underinvested” in public education relative to population, said Chris Kotterman, director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.
This was echoed by Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, who said many teachers and people involved in the education system have “kind of gotten used to” the state’s low rankings in school funding. .
“Schools are not able to afford a music teacher, an art teacher, a classroom assistant,” said Lewis, who is also a teacher. “Teachers try to be everything; advisers, assistant directors, nurses.
Arizona remains mired in the bottom of the rankings despite a 17.3% increase in funding per student between 2015 and 2020, according to the Census Bureau. But this remains below the national average of an 18.5% increase over the period.
Proponents are hopeful — but not optimistic — that the situation will change next year, with the state sitting on a budget surplus that could reach $5.3 billion.
They also point to the will of voters in the form of Proposition 208. Approved by voters in 2020, it would have spent more than $800 million in new taxes on schools in the first year, mostly on teacher salaries, but it has since was overturned by the Arizona courts.
The Arizona Education Association has created an “educator’s budget” that plans to allocate up to $1.2 billion in permanent surplus revenue to the public education system. It calls for increased spending on base salaries, full-day kindergarten, special education funding, and vocational and technical education programs, among other initiatives.
“We’re not asking to go from 50th to one,” AEA Vice President Marisol Garcia said of the educator’s budget. “We are asking to move from 50th to 30th.”
Garcia said the fact that Arizona voters approved Proposition 208 proves that the state’s low education funding “is not aligned with the priorities of parents, teachers and students.”
But Kotterman said schools are likely to receive only a fraction of that request, though he hopes lawmakers can increase funding for schools closer to the $500 million to $700 million range.
The legislature has until July 1 to approve a budget for fiscal year 2023. The spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education said lawmakers “must pass a budget that supports fair compensation for educators of our state and meets the needs of every student in our classrooms.”
For now, advocates say, with teachers being forced to shoulder more and more in the classroom, many schools are struggling to cope.
“Arizona doesn’t even provide enough resources for our kids,” Lewis said. “We know that our poor children suffer much more than wealthier areas.”
Lack of funding has led many teachers to quit their jobs due to burnout, said Garcia, who said schools were being held together “with a band-aid and a prayer”. Kotterman said new teachers in Arizona often only last three to five years before leaving the profession.
“The tendency is for teachers to leave because they’re so tired and they feel like they can’t do their jobs anymore,” Lewis said.
As of September 2021, 25.9% of teaching vacancies in Arizona schools were unfilled and 55.4% of teaching vacancies were filled by teachers who did not meet the standard certification requirements of the school. state, according to surveys by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.
Garcia said lawmakers need to listen to what voters have said in passing Proposition 208.
“The voters are behind this, they passed proposals,” Garcia said. “If parents didn’t want schools to go hungry, they wouldn’t send their children to public schools.”
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