The biggest fight over education funding isn’t who gets the money, it’s who benefits most

August 28, 2019 11:36 am

Photo via Getty Images

If there’s one thing a majority of Arizona voters seem to agree on, it’s that our state does a poor job of funding its public schools.

It seems every few weeks, there’s another ranking that puts us at or near the bottom on measurements such as teacher pay or overcrowded classrooms or per pupil funding or early childhood education.

This plethora of bad news is why so many of our politicians – regardless of party or voting record – claim to be “pro-education” during campaign season, and why so many organizations are actively lobbying the legislature for increased education funding.

But among the lobbying camps, there are two very distinct ideologies driving the push for funding.

On one side stands the test score lobby, a group dominated by Gov. Doug Ducey’s closest allies, namely the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Not surprisingly, the test score lobby believes standardized tests are the best way to measure a school’s and/or a teacher’s performance.

Nevermind that numerous studies point to other factors, such as family income and educational achievement, as better indicators of how well a student will perform. Or that standardized tests fail to measure some of the most critical indicators of future success such as creativity. Or drive. Or resiliency.

The test score lobby prefers we not talk about those things.   

As cheerleaders for test scores, this group is the force behind the euphemistically named “results-based” funding formula, which divides our scarce education dollars into bonus payments to a select number of schools with higher than average AZMerit standardized test scores.

On the other side of the debate stands the majority of education groups, including those representing teachers, administrators and school boards associations. These are the folks who have to live with the consequences of good or bad education policy.

The education groups tend to favor equity over test scores, and are much more willing to weigh factors such as poverty, learning differences, and English as a second language when evaluating growth, student success and teacher performance. 

For the equity lobby, giving bonus money to schools that serve fewer, or in some cases zero,  students with socioeconomic challenges is counter to the mission of public education. The equity lobby seeks to close the achievement gap, not exacerbate it.

The test score lobby has been sensitive to the criticisms lodged by the other side. In an attempt to side-step complaints that wealthier schools and students have been the main beneficiaries of test-based funding, they set aside extra bonus money for schools that test well AND have populations of 60-percent or more students who qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch.

While that tweak may have assuaged some critics, it’s really nothing more than an attempt to distract us from the bigger question: Why focus our limited funding on students who are already achieving?

If the end goal is to “move the education needle,” as we so commonly hear, then wouldn’t we be better off using our limited education dollars to close some of the funding gaps between wealthier and poorer districts?

I believe the test score lobby understands the flaws in their formulas, but they press forward nonetheless.  


Because the real fight over education funding isn’t about how much money our schools need, but rather who that money benefits.

Those pushing test-based funding are the same individuals pushing vouchers and other privatization schemes that further the wealth gap among schools – and students. It seems these groups are less interested in supporting all children than they are in shoring up state funding for the schools that educate their own kids.

And that’s really what all of this comes down to. Should our education dollars help create a level playing field? Or should they be used to raise up the select few?

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.