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Arizona's low classroom spending is the price of districts being broke

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What the Devil won't tell you

Arizona's low classroom spending is the price of districts being broke

Annual Auditor General hit job on schools paints false picture; class budgets reflect teacher pay

  • Paul Hayton/Flickr

Every March the Arizona Auditor General's Office releases a report on K-12 classroom spending and every year the math-challenged press falls for the clickbait line “Arizona classroom spending near record lows.”

So we end up with sky-is-falling headlines suggesting schools get enough money but the cash is just spent wrong.

In fact the story is just a small denominator under slightly larger numerator different than the national average. It's basic fractions, requiring math skills and … oh, well, it's Arizona.

The auditor general is just doing her job. Under state law law, Debra Davenport's team must annually review and publish how the state's classroom spending gets divided up. There's good stuff in the report. My problem with it is that the legally required component – provide a statewide number for the percent of the budget going into classrooms – muddies the bigger picture.

Up until last year a key part of the study was national context, which is only brought up in passing within the pages of the newest report. On the one hand, kudos for dropping that aspect. On the other hand, the national context is important when asking "what does stuff cost?"

Arizona ranks next-to-last nationally in state support for public schools and then restricts what local districts can spend through spending limits. It's why voters need to approve overrides. So the state doesn't provide enough money to pay teachers – far and away the biggest driver of classroom expenses – then cuffs districts around for not spending enough in classrooms.

With instructional salaries lagging the national average by 25 percent, the figure for classroom spending is just going to look low.

The definition of broke is when your income barely covers your overhead.

Fixed costs just have a floor independent of income. You gotta pay for rent. You gotta pay for electricity. You gotta pay for food. You gotta pay for transportation. In this age, you gotta pay for the Internet. If you spend $800 a month on those things ($400 for rent, $200 for food, $200 for all other gotta-have expenses) and work a minimum wage job that pays $1,200 a month, that means two-thirds of your income is going to pay for overhead. Say you earn the median income of about twice the minimum wage. Your expenses go up to $1,200 a month. Now your overhead accounts for just half your income. Raising revenues is the key to the equation.

Maybe I can save a few bucks by not changing the oil in my car or chip sealing a driveway. Both are just going to cost me more in the future.

The phrase “struggling financially” exists for a reason.

The same works for schools, which rank 49th in the country in terms funding per-pupil and compared to state income. They gotta have a building that they can afford to cool. They gotta have an administration. They gotta get kids to the school and home again. They gotta feed the kids actual food. They gotta have counselors and assistants (which don't count as classroom dollars). Arizona does all this for $739 less per-pupil than the national average in the previous two years. That's not bad considering Arizona schools spend $3,501 total on overhead per-pupil.

Comparing Arizona to a state like Massachusetts isn't fair because Massachusetts can spend twice as much as Arizona on “general administration” (because they do) and still have $9.225 to spend per pupil on “instruction.” So the wicked-rich schools in Mass could set half their administrative budget on fire and get credit for running a ship of tighter constitution than Arizona.

No starved child will ever buff up.

Arizona meanwhile, spends $1,523 per pupil less on instructional salaries than the rest of the country. Just pay teachers and aides the national average — according to the auditor's own numbers — and Arizona would spend 61 percent of its budget inside the classroom. Bingo. Done. The Arizona Legislature just doesn't wanna.

Also what counts as “instruction/classroom spending” is a bit out of whack. A football coach's salary counts as “instruction” for teaching boys the finer points of the counter trap but the librarian is “administrative” for helping some girl research a term paper.

Please: More post patterns and less Chaucer.

Most insidious is how school funding for “classroom supplies” gets folded into instruction yet the fact that budgets are so tight teachers must pay for these out of their own salary doesn't get reflected in actual spending. If Minnesota, for instance, gave each teacher a $400 classroom budget but Mrs. Lopez pays $500 out of her pocketbook for the same kind of supplies, then Frau Gopher Middle School gets credit for the money but Jim Click Automotive Elementary School spends not a dime on supplies.

Also important to remember is that the classroom spending trend line follows a downward path in no small part because the Legislature was arguing in court that it needn't adhere to a constitutional provision requiring increased funding for inflation.

It's not like a superintendent can call the commodities market and say “I know wheat costs are up for school lunches but Ariana shouldn't be so charged because our lawmakers think inflation, evolution and climate change to be hoaxes. So cut us a break.” Of course the money just comes out of the classroom budgets.

Don't discount the audit by any means but use it for its strengths.

The state's auditors provide good information with a detailed comparison of how the school districts compare to one another. Apparently, the on-deadline scribes and talking heads don't like to read past the executive summary or they would see that's where the gold of this annual analysis lies buried. I wrote about it last year regarding TUSD, and the now-departed H.T. Sanchez wrote a guest opinion explaining his side (I was wrong, except for what I actually wrote).

The meat of the auditors' report explores better practices and shows district-by-district comparisons. Good work guys.

Arizona political leaders have long made the calculation that forcing schools to get by on the cheap is good for business. Suggesting Arizona climb out of 49th place out of 50 states and a district elicits the conservative rejoinder: "My God. When will you ever be satisfied?"

I don't know, 41st place? (Insert smiley emjoi, here).

State leaders have that prerogative but this annual smear on state schools is like a boss paying workers minimum wage and then bitching at the employee who brings Bar S to the company potluck.

It's a dick move.

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