Thursday, December 12, 2019

What Will It Take For Arizona's Education Funding to Catch Up With Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and That Distant Star, West Virginia?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 12, 2019 at 1:43 PM

The next Arizona legislative session is on the horizon. Legislators are dropping bills ranging from the sublime — another attempt at ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment — to the ridiculous — prohibiting teachers from discussing the environment from an economic or social perspective.

It's never too early to talk about next year's K-12 education funding, even though the budget is usually the last thing the legislature votes on. So let's talk about it.

When I began blogging in 2008, I wrote a post, We’re Number One!.. In Lowest Per-Student School Spending. It was based on an article in the Star which cited a study putting Arizona at the bottom of the nation in per-student spending.

Ten years later, in 2018, we spent a thousand dollars less per student than in 2008 when you adjust for inflation. To get back to 2008's lowest-in-the-nation levels would have taken an additional billion dollars. We caught up a little this past legislative session thanks to pressure from the #RedforEd movement, but not much. We're still spending significantly less per student than we did a decade ago.

According to the state rankings for 2017-18 from the National Education Association, Arizona's per-student funding is $8,123. It's better than Utah and Idaho, but that's it. We're third from the bottom. The national average is $12,920, half again as much as we spend. You might find different figures elsewhere depending on how the numbers are crunched, but the NEA's are in the same ballpark as most other sources, and since it uses a consistent methodology across the country, we can compare spending state to state.

We have about a million students in our district and charter schools, which means it takes a billion dollars to add a thousand dollars per student. Arizona is $4,800 below the national average, so just to be average, we would have to spend another $4.8 billion a year.

It's true, Arizona isn't a rich state. It's possible average is more than we can manage. Maybe third from the bottom is the best we can do.

Or maybe not. I looked at what four southern states spend per student: Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia. All four states have a median income about $10,000 lower than Arizona's. According to a listing of states from richest to poorest, they rank among the five poorest states, while Arizona comes in at 27. Yet all four states have figured out how to spend significantly more per student than Arizona, between a thousand and four-and-a-half thousand more.

How much more would Arizona have to spend on K-12 education to pull even with those four states? Another billion would bring us up to Mississippi levels. Make that two billion and we reach Arkansas, three billion and we reach Louisiana. To climb all the way to what they spend in West Virginia, which is dead last on the rich-to-poor rankings, Arizona would have to add a whopping $4.5 billion to its education funding.

Here is the per-student spending for each state if you want to do the math yourself. Mississippi: $9,027. Arkansas: $10,042. Louisiana: $11,371. West Virginia: $12,631.

There's no question we can support our children's educations at the same level as four of the poorest states in the country. All it takes is the will to raise taxes on those who can best afford it, meaning the rich and big business, who haven't been paying their fair share in this state for decades.

That means a few Republican legislators will have to find the guts to vote for the state's children instead of lobbyists and big ticket donors, and Governor Ducey will have to find enough humanity deep inside his trickle-down soul to sign the increases into law.

If that is a bridge too far, if that is a mountain too high for the current legislature — and I fear it is — then it's time to vote out the people who don't support a respectable level of education funding for our children, and vote in people who do.

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