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Lawmakers Crack the Code to K-12 Funding in Arizona

March 30, 2021

Arizona lawmakers just cracked the code for education funding in Arizona. But perhaps not in the way they intended.

The breakthrough came during Phoenix mom Elyssa Garcia’s testimony on SB 1280, a bill which would provide much needed transportation funding flexibility for Arizona public school families:

“My husband and I didn’t attend college… After high school, we worked entry-level jobs and earned a minimum wage. And when it was time to decide on the school for our daughters, we knew that in order for our children to have a better opportunity, we had to go outside of south Phoenix. We were lucky enough to get them into a Madison [district] school, and they have been there ever since. That meant driving past three elementary districts: Roosevelt, Phoenix, and Osborn….

This will be our tenth year transporting our daughters to and from school…that’s nearly 5,600 round trips to and from school and over 62,000 miles. I wish that they could walk to school or take the school bus, but our home district has still not been able to turn around the academic program in the ten years our children have been at Madison. Nor has Madison given us the opportunity to provide any type of transportation to us…This is the perfect bill to give parents the opportunity to give their children the education that they deserve.”

In response, one lawmaker offered a seemingly more equitable and elegant solution: Rather than helping the Garcia kids travel beyond the 3 school districts that would have failed to serve them, simply provide those districts the same level of funding that Madison schools get already:

“Would you like it if your schools down the street were funded as well as Madison so that they had everything Madison has? …I think that’s a relevant question.”

Maybe it would be a relevant question, but there’s just one small complication—one that happens to expose the entire public school bureaucracy’s mindset when it comes to education funding:

The three public school districts nearer to the Garcia household, which supposedly need extra funding levels to be equal with the Madison district, already all spend significantly more per child than Madison.

In fact, as reported by the state Auditor General, these districts spend as much as thousands of dollars more per student per year.

Source: 2021 Arizona Auditor General District Spending Report.

In other words, “more funding” doesn’t appear to be the missing magic ingredient, despite the instinctive and dogmatic rush by the education establishment to see every problem as one whose solution is to simply pour more money in. 

Ironically, it took the parent, not the politicians, to observe:

“Absolutely I would love for my kids to attend my local school district. However, there has been so much turnover from a board level, administrative level, that I think it’s more than a funding issue for my school district. There is a community that needs to be changed and throwing more money at my school district is not going to solve the problem. We need to have opportunities to take our kids to better schools if we choose to.” 

Sadly, despite the compelling and courteous account of her family’s struggles and sacrifice, and the fairly stark funding realities evident in the Auditor General report, Garcia found herself also told that her testimony was  “problematic…because we’ve been advocating…for more investment in our public schools, and each time we’re given this false narrative of we’re going to help the underprivileged…”

But as a recent Goldwater Institute report found, Arizona has increased its investments in K-12 by over 40%, even adjusted for inflation, over the past several decades. That means public schools today are getting more than $3,000 a year per kid (or $60,000 per class of 20 students) in extra funding.

Source: Annual Reports of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; Joint Legislative Budget Committee All Funding FY 2001-2021. Adjusted for inflation using Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI figures, in constant 2020 dollars.

So, while “more money” may be the right code words for politicians looking to score points with union benefactors, perhaps Arizona’s legislators will heed the testimony from moms like Elyssa Garcia, that what’s most needed is more flexible funding.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.




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