Well, it’s official: Dead last. No pussyfooting around.
Arizona spends less per student on education than any other state in the country, according to estimates on the 2012-13 school year compiled by the National Education Association.
The estimate updates three-year-old Census Bureau figures that had Arizona 47th at about $7,666 per student, which was slightly more than Oklahoma and about 10-15 percent more than Idaho or Utah.
The NEA survey put Arizona’s per-student spending at $7,021, reflecting the cuts in state spending on education during the recent recession. Census Bureau estimates suggest Arizona made deeper percentage cuts in education than any other state.
On average nationally, school districts spend $11,300 per student. That’s about 61 percent more than Arizona schools have to spend — or about $4,300. If Payson Schools had an extra $4,300 per student, the district would have an extra $10 million to spend this year.
The national comparison comes on the heels of an Arizona Auditor General report that also documented the decreases and concluded that the cuts fell disproportionately on teachers, resulting in a decline in the share of educational dollars going into the classroom to 54 percent — the lowest percentage since the state started tracking that figure in 2001.
The state budget for fiscal 2014-15 doesn’t look likely to change the trend. Gov. Jan Brewer proposed a roughly 1.4 percent per-student increase. The House and Senate versions of the budget include similar increases, although the Legislature wants to spend less on district charter schools, helping districts set up and administer testing and a few other categories likely to affect schools. Neither the governor’s budget nor the two legislative versions include money to help districts catch up on accumulating capital needs.
The only likelihood for any significant increase in state spending on education in the future rests on the reaction to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature had illegally withheld more than $1 billion in inflation adjustments for schools in violation of a voter-approved mandate. Legislative leaders have said they won’t repay that money, despite the court ruling.
In the meantime, local school districts have struggled to cope with the cuts.
The Payson School Board last week reviewed a preliminary budget proposal that would spend most of the $1.2 million it received from the sale of Frontier Elementary School on a long list of building repairs on the remaining campuses. The district would also upgrade its aging computer and phone technology, but doesn’t have the money to replace several buses and vans with 200,000 miles on the odometer nor to provide counselors and other requested positions. However, the district does plan to add three teachers due to a rise in enrollment and has also increased administrative staffing at the district and school site level.
The release of the latest national figures set off the familiar debate about how much spending levels affect student achievement.
Although Arizona ranks dead last in spending, the state’s student test scores generally come in near the middle of the pack.
The state has a graduation rate of 78 percent, which would be higher, but for the abysmal 25 percent graduation rate among students classified as “limited English proficient.” We’re close to the national average overall, but the worst in the country by a wide margin for the non-English-speaking students, according to Census Bureau figures.
Arizona ranks 26th when it comes to student scores on the SAT and ACT tests for college admission according to a compilation of the 2013 scores by the Commonwealth Foundation.
Some studies have shown little consistent relationship between state-level per-student spending and student achievement, leading mostly conservative groups to argue that school spending levels don’t matter.
Other studies that have dug deeper into the raw numbers have found spending does affect student achievement, but mostly when directed into the classroom through class size reductions and improved teacher incentives and qualifications. Increased spending has the most impact in districts with many low-income families, like Payson.