Arizona consistently hovers in the lowest percentile for per-pupil funding nationally.
The state made sweeping investments to education last session. And as budget negotiations for the next fiscal year start at a slow crawl, lawmakers continue to point out disparities seen in per-pupil funding around the country and statewide.
Nationally, Arizona ranks dead last, with the average funding sitting at $10,244, falling $5,202 short of the $15,446 national average, according to the most recent report from the Education Law Center, which analyzed 2020 per-pupil funding.
The average per-pupil spending for 2022, factoring in both state and national funding sources, is $13,454, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s 2022 report.
But in a presentation to the Senate Education Committee last week, Alexa Tavasci, division of school audits manager, said spending was up in general because of continued Covid federal relief money, though she noted those federal funds are set to expire in 2024.
Using just the state’s equalization formula, the average per-pupil funding is $6,776, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
Both the Auditor General’s Office and Joint Legislative Budget Committee presented their findings on per-pupil funding to the Senate Education Committee last week.
Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, said the “crux” of the presentations was to illustrate the disparities in per-pupil funding amid similarly situated schools.
In a separate spreadsheet with the average per-pupil funding from both state and federal dollars, Bennett made notes of where schools similar in size saw thousands of dollars in spending differences.
Bennett said he wanted to figure out the factors at play.
“When I contemplate us putting more money into K-12 education, I have a hard time just putting the money into a formula that continues to maintain that large of a disparity,” Bennett said.
When comparing the 10th and 90th percentiles across all schools, Bennett noted disparities can climb near or above the $10,000 mark.
He used Peach Springs Unified School District and Seligman Unified School District as a comparison. Both schools are considered “very small,” or have student populations below 200.
Peach Springs has 141 students and Seligman has 140. Peach Springs sees $45,875 in per-pupil funding while Seligman is at $27,689 per pupil.
“I’m not ever talking about taking from the haves to give to the have-nots, but if we’re going to give these (schools) that are already well above the average, a dollar, we ought to be looking to figure out how to give two dollars to the ones below that,” Bennett said.
Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, said the conversation about evening out disparities in per-pupil funding is a welcome and necessary one.
But she noted the imbalances identified can also come from federal funding sources working toward equity, such as Johnson O’Malley Act funding for Indigenous students and Title I funding for low-income students.
About 90% of Peach Springs’ population is American Indian and Alaska Native, according the 2020 Census, which could account for the higher per-pupil funding.
Lewis said disparities in per-pupil averages definitely exist statewide, but there should be a focus on state and local funding to avoid conflation with federal money.
“There needs to be an opportunity for restructuring the conversation so that it is more representative of the fact that we’re dealing with state and local dollars and not federal,” Lewis said, “So that it can be productive.”