Parents, teachers, business leaders, and public education advocates from all political points of view often speak of their vision for a strong system of schools for all students in Arizona. Of late, this conversation has centered largely on how much to add to current funding rather than whether the current formula those dollars would be plugged in to would achieve that vision or meaningfully address the scale of inequity in how our state funds K-12 public school students.
The funding system we currently have was built for a time when students were assigned to schools within often discriminatory boundaries that kept local wealth in, and non-local students out. It was also built at a time when the property wealth that drives extra funding opportunities was not so vastly disparate between urban and rural neighborhoods.
There was a big correction to the inequities created by district boundaries back in 1980. While this work stabilized the minimum amount all public schools received, it did not address the portions of the funding formula that allow individual school systems to earn thousands more per student for reasons that still had more to do with geography than student need.
Since then, Arizona has also moved to a K-12 public school system that provides opportunity for students to attend the school that best meets their needs. This means geography-based funding models are less relevant than they were even in 1980. As our K-12 public education system continues to modernize, the outdated funding mechanism puts many students at a funding disadvantage.
We have known of these problems with the funding formula for decades. With every passing month, as Arizona grows, so do the inequities.
Democrat and Republican leaders alike have sought to tackle the unfairness in our system of funding schools. In countless committees, conferences, and task forces, the findings and recommendations have been remarkably similar – fund students based on individual student characteristics and not on the location of the school they attend, and tax in a way that is equitable across communities.
The current funding inequities have created such financial advantages for some public schools that no Legislature has been able to advance a complete solution and get it passed.
However, there is new energy behind this idea of fairness for every student regardless of the county, zip code or neighborhood in which they learn. The heart of the new option being considered by the Legislature creates a formula to reliably fund each student based on individual need, with similar students receiving the same amount of money regardless of where in the state they attend school.
Nobody is forced to opt into this new formula, and many won’t, as their advantage in the current system is clear. But for district and charter school students who don’t benefit from local advantages like bonds and overrides, the new formula is a win and helps to bridge the gap between those who have thousands of dollars more per student and those who do without. Other aspects of this legislation begin to eliminate the significantly unfair access to funding that less than half of Arizona schools qualify for and shares the funding out to all schools.
Equitable funding for every public school student is our primary goal. We hope that the incremental increase in fairness and real funding for more public school students in the proposal under consideration will make it easier to build consensus and move us closer to funding truly built around student need.
Lastly, some have said stakeholders have not had sufficient time to weigh in. Yet elected officials and education advocates are all clear on the faults of the current system. Generations of students pass through this system while we have waited for a change. We do agree that change takes time, it won’t be easy, and we welcome viable student-centered solutions. We must simply commit to making an actual start.
The Arizona Student Funding Reform effort currently being heard in the Legislature is that start.
Emily Anne Gullickson is the CEO and Founder of A for Arizona.