PHOENIX — The share of education tax dollars that actually winds up in Arizona classrooms slid again last year, to the lowest level in the 13 years the state has been monitoring.
New figures from the Auditor General’s Office show less than 54 cents out of every education dollar went into actual classroom spending — 7.4 percentage points below the national average.
Auditor General Debra Davenport said that shows up largely in more students being packed into fewer classes.
The average class size in Arizona is larger than the national average, Davenport said, and has increased in the last two years.
The numbers also reflect the fact that while the number of children attending Arizona public schools has dropped by 3 percent since 2009, the number of teachers dropped by 8.6 percent.
Davenport said the declining percentage of education dollars making their way into the classroom tells just half the story.
She said education spending in 2013 was $7,485 per pupil , $412 less than in 2009.
When you start with a smaller number and then spend less of it in the classroom, that results in a double whammy, she said.
Davenport said it’s not superintendents, principals, business managers and clerical staff who are sucking up all the money, noting Arizona schools overall spent less than the national average on administration.
What’s making up the difference, she said, are other noninstructional costs.
For example, she said, Arizona schools spent more than the national average on plant operations, much of it for heating and cooling.
Further, she said, the state’s higher-than-average poverty rate means more students using support services such as counselors, social workers and attendance services. Twenty-two percent of Arizona’s school-age children live at or below the poverty level, two points higher than the national average.
“Clearly, we do need to get more money into the schools,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that is happening, slowly, as the state recovers from the recession.
The trickier part, though, may be getting more of whatever dollars are available actually into the classroom.
Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, Kavanagh’s Senate counterpart, said technology may help.
First, he said, the state could ensure all classrooms are wired for high-speed Internet. That frees up local dollars to be used for education.
But Shooter said Internet access also could help schools do more with less money, figuring wired classrooms could allow a single teacher to provide instruction to multiple classes.
Kavanagh said one option might be a legislative mandate that at least 57 cents of every dollar spent on education be earmarked for instruction. He said the report shows that is possible.
“We have some districts that are able to get up to the 57-to-60-percent range without much difficulty,” he said. “We’ve got to do better than (the average of) 53.8 percent.”
Meeting that goal should be easier if lawmakers do make more cash available, he said.
A spokeswoman for John Huppenthal, who has been state school superintendent since 2010, said late Friday he was not available to comment on the report.