Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature have touted their decision to invest $660 million new dollars from the state’s general fund into the public education system next fiscal year as a win for educators and students.
But local school district leaders say the budget — though better than what they have had to work with in recent years — still deeply undercuts the urgent needs and issues facing Arizona’s public schools.
The 2020 budget increases the state’s baseline per-student spending by roughly only $190 for each of Arizona’s public school students, according to an Arizona Department of Education spokesman.
It also allocates an extra $174 per traditional public school student and $36 per charter school student in additional assistance funds, which pay for expenses like new textbooks or air-conditioning systems.
While there’s another $217 million or so in new education funds written into the state budget, Arizona schools aren’t guaranteed access to that as they are earmarked for competitive grants and merit-based funding programs — programs many educators tout as “band-aid fixes” to the state of education funding in Arizona.
“There’s the devil in the details that people are not aware of,” Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Todd Jaeger told the Arizona Daily Star. “I don’t really want to call it a smoke-and-mirrors kind of thing, but it does feel that way.”
EXPECTATION VS. REALITY
Next fiscal year, school districts across Arizona will receive funding increases in two key areas: teacher raises and district and charter additional assistance.
The budget dedicates $165 million for teacher raises, which Ducey says will put the state on track to fulfill his promise of raising salaries by 20% by 2020. It puts $136 million into the additional assistance fund, which allows schools to pay for new school buses, building repairs and other operational and capital expenses.
Ducey cut additional assistance by $117 million in 2015, which effectively drained the fund, Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat confirmed to the Star.
The funding for raises and additional assistance will be factored into the base-level school-funding formula, which means the total amount of funding an individual school would receive depends on how many students it enrolls and how many students carry additional funding, like having special education or English-language-learner needs.
The $190-per-student funding allocation is made up of roughly $111 per student for teacher raises and $79 for inflation adjustments, Swiat said.
Local educators who spoke with the Star say they are grateful for the base-level funding infusions, though they are smaller than they hoped. But calling the budget a win for education is a bit of a stretch, according to Catalina Foothills Superintendent Mary Kamerzell.
“We’re not where we were in 2008, as far as base-level funding for students,” Kamerzell said. “I don’t know what else to say other than that.”
And some local school districts have told the Star they can’t actually cover the cost of teacher raises with the money the state has allocated over the last two fiscal years. Amphi’s Jaeger said to award every teacher a raise this year, Amphi had to take roughly $800,000 out of its capital fund, which is set aside for expenses like building renewal and new construction, in addition to funding provided by the state.
The district will have to take another $800,000 out of capital fund in 2020 because the state did not provide sufficient funding for the district to give the 5% teacher raise Ducey promised, Jaeger said.
“(The raises) were all calculated based upon what (teacher) pay was in 2017,” Jaeger said. “In other words, the 5% raise for next year wasn’t calculated upon what wages are right now.”
Since wages are higher now, the raise will cost more to give than it would have in 2017. This leaves Amphi between a rock and a hard place because it will likely only be able to give teachers a 4.5% raise, in 2020, despite dipping into the capital fund.
“It leaves us trying to get our employees to understand what our reality really is, and that when they’ve heard promises from Phoenix of 5%, that Phoenix did not provide 5% to us,” Jaeger said. “They’re honestly quite disappointed and anxious when they realize reality doesn’t bear what they’ve been promised.”
Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office, said there is “substantial funding” the budget will allow schools to use for a variety of purposes, referring to some school districts’ struggles to fund the teacher raises Ducey promised.
“Not just teacher raises, but other needs identified by schools. And I think that’s why this budget is so significant in what it does for K-12 education,” Ptak said.
The grant- and merit-based funding that makes up roughly $217 million in the budget is said to be unreliable and inequitable because it doesn’t factor into the base-level school funding formula and varies based on student academic achievement, perceived level of need and other subjective factors.
For example, the 2020 budget reserves $88 million for school building renewal and $76 million for new school construction.
No Tucson-area schools received funding for new school construction, however, and it is uncertain how many will qualify for school building renewal grants, which the State Facilities Board awards on a needs-based basis, according to a board spokesman.
The budget also bolsters the state’s controversial results-based funding program by $30 million. Local educators have told the Star the program is problematic because it rewards the highest-performing schools in the state, which usually serve fewer students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Two-dozen Tucson schools received results-based funding this fiscal year. Of those, only seven served student populations where 60% or more of kids enrolled qualified for free-and-reduced lunch — an indicator of high poverty, according to education experts.
Finally, the budget funds new grant programs for growing career and technical education programs at public high schools and for hiring school resource officers or school counselors. The career-grant program gets $10 million in the budget, while the counselor/resource officer safety program gets $20 million. The funding for both programs will phase in over the course of two years, Ptak said.
These are both new programs, and it is uncertain if any Tucson schools will receive funding from them, since they have to apply in 2020. They will be competing with schools and districts across the state for the funds, which can stretch only so far, Catalina Foothills’ Kamerzell said.
“I don’t know how far $20 million goes,” Kamerzell said. “($10 million) doesn’t go very far.”
All in all, district leaders are grateful for increased funding because it’s better than nothing. But the fact is that the state still hasn’t restored education funding to pre-recession levels, on all fronts.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to make our schools more competitive in the nation,” Amphi’s Jaeger said. “We have a lot of work to do to unpack and see what (the 2020 budget) could mean for us. We already know that it doesn’t mean what most people would think it means.”