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A History of Increase: K-12 Funding in Arizona

Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy

October 16, 2020

Matt Beienburg

Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy and Director of Education Policy

The Goldwater Institute


The United States spends thousands of dollars more per student on public K-12 education than virtually any nation on earth, despite producing below-average academic outcomes.[i] Arizona, in contrast, has long been criticized for reportedly slashing its education funding, even as its students have outpaced national average gains on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2005.[ii]

Despite the popular narrative that Arizona has decimated funding for K-12, however, the actual data reveal a significant long-term trajectory of funding increases—even as school districts have overwhelmingly directed these additional dollars away from salary increases for teachers. Moreover, claims of funding cuts in Arizona rely on the arbitrary exclusion of years outside of the pre-Great Recession economic bubble and ignore four decades of increased investment in K-12.


Executive Summary

  • After adjusting for inflation, total per pupil funding for Arizona public school students has increased 42% since 1980, rising by over $3,000 per student from $8,119 to $11,594. (In unadjusted dollars, funding per student has increased even more dramatically during this time, from $2,602 to $11,594.)[iii]
  • A classroom of 20 students has over $60,000 more on average to spend each year on students’ education than in 1980, even after adjusting for inflation.
  • School districts have put less than 10% of this increase in available funding toward boosting teacher salaries. Compared to the more than $60,000 increase in funding available per class of 20 students, average teacher salaries have gone up just $4,500 per teacher (adjusted for inflation). Specifically, average teacher pay in Arizona in 1980 was $17,158, ($53,537 in today’s dollars).[iv] The state’s “20×2020” teacher pay raise supplied funding for average district teacher salaries of approximately $58,000 in 2020.[v] 
  • Arizona’s per pupil funding has increased every decade since 1980, even adjusted for inflation, rising from $8,119 (1980) to $9,127 (1990), to $10,708 (2000), to $11,009 (2010), and to $11,594 (2020).[vi]
  • Even adjusting for inflation, Arizona students receive more money today than any year in state history except a handful of years in the run-up to the Great Recession. During these years, the peak in funding was owed in part to state legislators’ decision to increase K-12 funding by over $200 million a year above what was required by law, in addition to a brief burst in the construction of new facilities to accommodate student growth.

Figure 1

As shown in Figure 1 above, per pupil funding in Arizona has increased from $2,602 (in 1980) to $11,594 (in 2020). Adjusted for inflation, this increase represents a rise of more than $3,000 per student per year, from $8,119 to $11,594.[vii]

While there have been intervals of decline amid the overall upward trajectory, including during the mid- 1990s and more significantly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, students have begun each decade with more funding than their peers did in the decade before, as shown below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Districts Have Not Directed Increases in K-12 Funding to Teachers

This rise in per pupil funding equates to an increase of over $60,000 (in current dollars) of available funding per class of 20 students. However, school districts have directed a comparatively small portion of these additional resources to increasing teacher salaries in real terms.

Specifically, as reported by the Arizona Department of Education, teacher salaries for the 1980-1981 school year averaged $17,158 ($53,537 in today’s dollars).[viii] With the “20×2020” teacher pay raise plan recently enacted by the state, districts received enough funding to bring average salaries to approximately $58,000 for the 2020-2021 school year.[ix] This means that in real terms, teacher salaries have increased by approximately $4,500. Compared to the more than $60,000 increase per class of 20 students, this suggests that less than 10 cents of each new dollar school districts have received over the past 40 years has gone to increasing teacher pay.[x]

Fortunately, as the Arizona Tax Research Association found, the 20×2020 teacher pay raise—which required districts to disclose the use of their new funds—still provided districts enough new funding to bring the state’s average teacher pay to the 26th highest in the U.S., and the 16th highest when adjusted for inflation.[xi]

State Legislators and Arizona’s Peak in K-12 Funding

Despite the long-term increases in K-12 funding, Arizona legislators are frequently criticized for the reduction in per pupil funding that has occurred relative to the state’s all-time peak in 2008. Ironically, however, this peak itself was due in large part to state legislators’ attempts to increase K-12 funding more than was required by law when favorable economic conditions permitted in the years prior.

In particular, K-12 funding during this period included $231 million per year in base funding increases enacted by state legislators above and beyond what was required for inflation and student growth.[xii] Likewise, K-12 funding in fiscal year 2008 included over $360 million for new school construction—an amount that is more than $300 million above the estimated new school construction costs in fiscal year 2021. (District enrollment was growing by roughly 20,000 students each year in the mid-2000s, whereas statewide district enrollment has been flat in recent years.)[xiii] Taken together, these two factors alone account for more than $500 per student in additional funding in 2008—more than the difference between that year’s all-time high and the current funding level in 2020.


Critics have routinely cast Arizona lawmakers as adversaries who oppose the adequate funding of our K-12 students. Yet as seen from the data in this report, Arizona has not only increased its per pupil funding for decades, but its state legislators helped create Arizona’s peak funding levels by directing surplus funds to the K-12 system during times of strong economic growth.

While it is true that Arizona has increased its per pupil expenditures less aggressively than other states, it continues to outperform many of these same higher-spending peers in both math and reading.[xiv] It is essential, therefore, that policymakers and the public continue to expand opportunities for students rather than simply maximize the price tag of our schools.

End Notes

[i] Education Expenditures by Country. National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. May 2020.; Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Results from PISA 2018. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Accessed September 1, 2020.

[ii] The Grand Canyon State Charts Progress on NAEP. National Assessment Governing Board. June 21, 2019.

[iii] Author’s calculations using: 1980-81 Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Arizona Department of Education. December 1981; K-12 Funding Since 2001 (All Funding). Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee. August 17, 2020.; Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI for All Urban Consumers, All Items, 1980-2020.

[iv] 1980-1981 Annual Report of the Superintendent; adjusted for inflation using BLS CPI data.

[v] Background on Teacher Pay Raise Calculations. Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee. 2018.

[vi] Author’s calculations using: Annual Reports of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Arizona Department of Education; K-12 Funding Since 2001 (All Funding). Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee. August 17, 2020.; Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI for All Urban Consumers, All Items, 1980-2020.

[vii] While the total funding for 2020-2021 includes approximately $330 per student from federal CARES Act funding in addition to other state and federal resources, this total spending amount also underestimates average district school student funding by approximately $300, as the statewide average includes funding for charter school students, who are funded at $1,300 less per student than their district counterparts. Source: Overview of K-12 Per Pupil Funding for School Districts and Charter Schools. Joint Legislative Budget Committee. July 27, 2020.

[viii] 1980-1981 Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

[ix] Background on Teacher Pay Raise Calculations.

[x] These funds have not been used to hire disproportionately more teachers to lower student-teacher ratios either. The Arizona Department of Education reports 1980-1981 student enrollment ADM (average daily membership) of 503,192, along with 26,689 classroom teachers, for a student-teacher ratio of 18.9. In 2018-2019, district ADM totaled 917,509, while the number of teachers reached 49,363, for a student-teacher ratio of 18.6. Source: 1980-1981 and 2018-2019 Annual Reports of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

[xi] AZ Teacher Pay Update. Arizona Tax Research Association. August 2018.

[xii] $40 million enacted in fiscal year 2000, $45 million enacted in fiscal year 2006, $100 million enacted in fiscal year 2007, and $46 million enacted in fiscal year 2008, all for “additional base level increases” beyond statutorily required base level increases. Source: Joint Legislative Budget Committee: FY 2000 and FY 2001 Appropriations Report, page 141.; FY 2006 Appropriations Report, page 142.; FY 2007 Appropriations Report, page 144.; FY 2008 Appropriations Report, page 166.

[xiii] FY 2010 Appropriations Report. Joint Legislative Budget Committee.; FY 2021 Appropriations Report. Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

[xiv] National Assessment of Educational Progress. America’s Gradebook. Urban Institute. 2019.

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