PHOENIX — A program to teach coding to high schoolers, praised Monday by Gov. Doug Ducey as key to Arizona’s economic future, had to be financed by local taxpayers and grants due to a lack of state dollars.
And unless there’s a sudden boost in state funding, schools in other districts that want to duplicate the program will also not get state dollars to construct a facility and buy the equipment. That, then, would leave them dependent on voters approving the kinds of bonds that financed the Phoenix Coding Academy and helped pay for the computers.
“Computer science in terms of our future and economic development is critical,” Ducey said Monday after touring the facility and talking with students. “This is where the world’s going. The world’s changing very quickly.”
In meeting the students, the governor told them, “There’s no reason why someone in this room can’t be the next Steve Jobs.”
“We want all of our public schools to have access to this type of education for our students,” he said after the tour. “And we’re starting to make that happen.”
But that did not happen at the Phoenix Coding Academy in Phoenix Union High School District.
The state, which had agreed to fund all new schools to comply with a 1994 court ruling, stopped doing that years ago to save money. Instead, lawmakers allocated a limited number of dollars for new construction — this year it was $63 million — with districts having to prove their buildings already are overcrowded to even get a chance to bid for the available funds.
In this case, Phoenix Union High School District’s only option was to ask residents to pick up the tab for construction and some of the technology costs, and to make up the balance with federal grants.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate that we’ve been able to generate funding through bonds, overrides and capital outlay,” said Craig Pletenik, spokesman for the district. He said the district’s capital funding from the state is $1.8 million, 15 percent of what it was before the legislative change.
The result, he said, is the $13 million cost of the facility came out of a $230 million bond approved by voters in 2011. And the district spent $700,000 in the past two years to equip it using money from a 2015 voter-approved budget override.
As for computers, the formula in state law for “district additional assistance” says schools should be getting $450.7 million for everything from technology to books. That formula hasn’t been fully funded for years; this year schools are getting $69 million.
Ducey said progress is being made and that funding is 10 percent higher now than when he took office in 2015.
As to what’s to come, Ducey said he will release his budget plan for the coming school year in January.
“There will be additional dollars for K-12,” he said. “And there will be talk about the opportunities for computer technology as well.”
He provided no specifics. He remains adamant he will not consider new taxes to help make up for the losses in state funds in the past decade, losses that have left per-student funding below where it was in 2008 when inflation is taken into account.