In my 15 years covering Arizona politics and government, I’ve lost track of how many studies have found Arizona’s education system to be ranked at or near the bottom in what seems to be every way possible.
This week, Arizona actually notched the highest ranking in a new national study of school districts.
Unfortunately, it is cause for embarrassment instead of celebration, since the study by EdBuild found that districts with high concentrations of white students have $23 billion more funding than districts with high concentrations of nonwhite students, despite serving virtually equal numbers of students – and Arizona was at the top of the disparity heap.
The study split school districts into three groups: predominantly white (75 percent or more of students are white), predominantly nonwhite (75 percent are minorities) and not concentrated.
Nationally, the white districts have about $2,200 more per student in state and local funding than do the nonwhite districts.
That’s bad, especially as the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling in Serrano v. Priest, in which the California Supreme Court ruled that state’s education funding system violated the rights of low-income students by depriving them access to a quality education because funding largely depended on property wealth within a given school district.
That ruling inspired similar lawsuits in other states, including in Arizona, where our Supreme Court in 1994 ruled in Roosevelt Elem. School Dist. v. Bishop that our similarly property-tax-heavy school funding scheme – 45 percent of a district’s funding could come from local property taxes – violated the Arizona Constitution’s guarantee of a “general and uniform” public education system.
The state responded by providing more than $1 billion to bring all school buildings into compliance, creating the School Facilities Board, agreeing to fund regular maintenance for schools and limiting the ability of districts to issue property-tax-supported bonds to pay for capital projects.
That history makes it all the more horrific that EdBuild found Arizona’s whitest school districts get $16,427 per student, while the least white districts get only $8,814 – a disparity of $7,613, a whopping 346 percent more than the national average.
Even more disturbing is that the extra $129 million that goes to the white districts serves only 17,000 students, compared to the 291,000 who attend the heavily nonwhite districts and are shouldering this disparity.
Matt Richmond, one of the researchers on the EdBuild report, told me his team set out to answer a question: Are school district boundaries creating inequities?
The answer is indisputable. And the problem is that, even after Serrano and Roosevelt and the myriad other cases across the country, school districts are still reliant on local property taxes instead of receiving more uniform funding. Districts that have more valuable property tax bases correspondingly can raise more revenue – oftentimes even if they have lower tax rates than districts with smaller tax base.
The problem is the same across the country: State funding attempts to compensate for property-poor school districts, but is far out-paced by the local funding. In Arizona, that local funding comes from voter-approved property taxes.
Richmond shared with me some additional calculations that the EdBuild team did to double-check their conclusions, but that didn’t make the final report. In one calculation, they split school districts into quartiles – four equal groups – based on the poverty rate. Comparing funding for the 25 percent of districts that have the most poverty found the funding disparity was virtually unchanged: white high poverty districts had $7,448 more per pupil than nonwhite high poverty districts.
Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, said these figures are “the result of the policies” that have been in place since Students FIRST was implemented in 1998 in response to the Roosevelt lawsuit. Those policies allow the “haves” to expand their advantage over the “have nots” through voter-approved bonds and budget overrides.
But the systemic inequity is exacerbated by the legislature’s continued refusal to more robustly fund K-12 education, Swiat said.
“The legislature has to pump the system, not just to pre-recession levels, but to account for inflation since then,” he said.
In addition to simply increasing the base funding for Arizona students, Swiat said Hoffman favors exploring how to rework the entire school finance system to address the disparities that EdBuild found.
“Everything needs to be on the table,” he said.
As dismal as the study’s findings are, Swiat was bullish that such massive reforms are possible. The biggest reason for people to be optimistic, he said, was that there has been a thawing in some conservative corners of the legislature, as evidenced by lawmakers like Sen. Sylvia Allen – as fiscally conservative as they come – proposing a tax increase to fund schools.
“The conversation is starting to move from, ‘Should K-12 be funded?’ to ‘How should it be funded?’ Everything’s moving in the right direction. We’re having the right conversations,” Swiat said.
As the parent of a kindergartner, I want him to be right. But you’ll pardon me if I retain a healthy skepticism, because I’ve heard this song before.
I’ve seen 15 years of Republican legislative majorities – many of them far more moderate and friendly to the K-12 system than what we have now – fail to make any significant progress. I’ve watched how groups like the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, which has long talked up lofty goals about revamping how schools are paid for, fail to do more than nibble around the edges of school funding.
Here’s hoping the 54th Legislature proves me wrong.