In 2000, Arizona was spending only 57.7 cents of every education dollar in the classroom. That fact helped persuade voters to pass Proposition 301, which boosted the state sales tax to fund classroom spending with higher teacher salaries, more instruction aids and other needs.
Ten years later, the percentage of education funds spent in the classroom has changed: it is now only 56.9 cents per dollar, third-lowest among the 50 states.
A February 2010 report by state Auditor General Debbie Davenport found that, despite the $300 million raised annually by the Prop. 301 tax increases, the percentage of education dollars spent directly in classrooms has declined for five straight years and now is at a record low. She found many school districts are diverting classroom funds to transportation, special services, and bureaucracy, which the report says is a “violation of state law.”
Such funding diversions may inflict tangible harm on children, the report found, because districts that spend more of their funding in the classroom generally produce better students.
The report has important ramifications for public school policy and funding. The Legislature should consider reorganizing school districts by stripping away unnecessary bureaucracy, turning them into regional providers of services that capture economies of scale and letting schools make their own decisions about hiring and other budget matters. Private and charter schools operate with significantly lower overhead, so it also makes sense to expand access to such schools.
This year, we should be dubious of calls to increase taxes in order to save the schools. Clearly we can’t rely on school districts to get their priorities right. The Prop 301 experience proves the promise that extra tax revenues will trickle down to the kids is a hollow one.
Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.
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Auditor General’s report: Arizona Public School Districts’ Dollars Spent in the Classroom, Fiscal Year 2009 (February 2010)