Bottled in 1980, the Château Lafite Rothschild is one of the most collected wines in the world and fetches over $700 a bottle at auction today. That same year, with lawsuits sweeping the country, the Arizona Legislature wisely and successfully equalized funding across K-12 schools.
Unlike the famous wine, our K-12 funding formula has not improved with age. The funding fairness gains made in 1980 have faded and reversed – and the time has come for the current generation of lawmakers to act again.
Backfires, botches, and unintended consequences mar the history of judicial intervention in public school funding around the country. The original California effort in the 1970s inspired a grassroots property tax rebellion and, contrary to the hopes of litigants, California slid out of the Top 10 states based on per-pupil funding.
In New Jersey, courts redistributed vast sums of revenue to school districts that continue to show below average academic growth decades later. Texas endured decades of lawsuits and controversies, culminating in 2016 with the Texas Supreme Court describing the funding system it helped create as “Byzantine.”
While Arizona avoided judicial intervention in 1980, the state subsequently saw its share of education policy debacles unfold with the active participation of courts. The state’s one-size-fits-all English Language Learner (ELL) policy comes to mind, as well as millions of square feet of vacant district school space. Judges mean well, but their track record when it comes to public education policy is not encouraging.
Decades ago, Arizona lawmakers did what the state Constitution requires and equalized funding across K-12 schools. The 1980 equalization, however, has slowly receded as the system has become increasingly antiquated and inequitable.
Consider: Two Arizona students can attend public schools that receive wildly different levels of public funding simply because of their location – even within the same school district. To illustrate, in the 2019-20 school year, funding ranged between $5,015 per student and $39,977 per student for schools within Tucson Unified School District.
Funding differences do not only happen within school districts, but also between them. Out of the 207 school districts across Arizona, 61 of them – nearly 30% – receive at least twice as much funding as the state’s lowest-funded district: Snowflake Unified.
Likewise, a funding gap between district and charter schools persists and has significantly worsened. In 1998, the average Arizona district school received $145 more in state funding per-student than its charter counterpart; by 2020, the district funding advantage had grown to $1,308 per student.
During this legislative session, Arizona lawmakers debated a meaningful proposal to help equalize school funding: Senate Bill 1269. If passed, the legislation would go a long way toward immunizing the state against future court intervention. By creating a state funding formula that districts could voluntarily opt into, lawmakers aim to increase the minimum level of funding and reduce disparities.
Additional funding reform is warranted, and there are good examples to borrow from other states. Hawaii’s K-12 formula sends weighted funding directly to schools rather than to the district, and the state also elevates and empowers principals. Other states set a minimum floor on funding to help eliminate exceptional funding disparities between schools.
Fairness is one of the first lessons every student learns in kindergarten. While school finance can be incredibly complex, the concept at play here is quite simple – the state of Arizona should not play favorites in its funding of K-12 schools or disadvantage one student against another based purely on where they live or what school they attend.
More than 40 years ago, a bipartisan coalition of Arizona legislators came together to help ensure fairness in how the state funds public schools. The time has come for lawmakers to act again.
Matthew Ladner is director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity.