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State of play: Arizona's school funding rank has barely budged

Note: This story is more than 3 years old.

What the Devil won't tell you

State of play: Arizona's school funding rank has barely budged

Bad tactics aside, walkout succeeds in framing school funding for fall election, despite Ducey's sound and flurry

  • Paul Ingram/

OK, Arizona teachers, let me explain to you what you did wrong and why Gov. Doug Ducey is smiling... prematurely.

Governor, 48th ain't substantially better than 49th, especially if 48th comes with an asterisk.

Teachers, ending your week-long statewide walkout getting what you want is perfectly fine, because you were never going to get that entire wish list from this governor or this Legislature. Ending it immediately when the governor and Legislature passed a budget to hand you small raises that are paid for with smoke, a cracked mirror and some duct tape leaves the impression that one had something to do with another.

Had it gone on until this Monday or even Tuesday, teachers could have made it seem more about the students and financial hardships and less about what the governor did.

When people say progressives never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, this is what they mean.

Come November, voters can draw a reasonable conclusion as to whether the governor and Legislature fixed the school funding problem.

They haven't.

Whatever was lost tactically will be irrelevant to the broader strategy because the math hasn't changed. What started because Arizona ranked 49th in school funding won't end because the state now ranks 48th with an asterisk.

Arizona isn't investing in the future like the rest of the country — and not just the blue states but the vast majority, 19 of 23, red states.

The walkout served a purpose. It highlighted the issue in an election year, much like SB 1070 drove immigration as a deciding issue in 2010. The difference being, hardline immigration politics play to Republican strengths. The imperative of school funding is a battle fought on Democratic turf because Ducey won't do what must be done to start competing with the rest of the country vis-à-vis investing in the state's future. He won't raise taxes on those who benefited most from a quarter-century of state tax cuts.

The plan for teachers now, I guess, is to do what a lot of us suggested in the first place and pursue a ballot initiative because that was always the obvious play with the governor and Legislature being who they are. On the other hand, given what's happening nationally (and just happened in the Arizona 8th Congressional District) the Tea Party backlash seems to have Republicans underperforming during special elections to the point where control of the Legislature could flip for the first time in 52 years.

To the extent that school funding is driving the debate, the debate ain't going anywhere.

The way we were

In 2015, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed Arizona ranked 49th in per pupil K-12 funding (because the Census report is always three years behind).

Ducey decided that couldn't stand, so he lead efforts in 2016 to get voters to approve Prop. 123, converting a chunk of the State Land Trust into money for public education. Then his 2018 budget included another $233 million for schools. Throw in $300 million more this year and it seems like a lot of money, right?

The Census report that sent the debate into overdrive reported 2012 figures. The most recent numbers showed the 2015 rankings and demonstrate how far we have to go to catch up. There are 1.1 million students enrolled in Arizona public schools, so every $100 per pupil would roughly cost the state $100 million.

  • US. Average $11,454
  • 46. Nevada $8,451
  • 47. Mississippi $8,445
  • 48 Oklahoma $8,075
  • 49. Arizona $7,590

Arizona started off about $500 million out of 48th place and a billion dollars out of 47th.

The new normal

Let's try to get a more current picture, shall we? I looked at the most recent figures for those states and figured out what they've done since. Then I used state Auditor General numbers about what Arizona spent in 2017 and added increases over the past two years.

So, after the most recent budget, Arizona spends something like $8,631 per pupil and we leapfrog Nevada, Oklahoma and Mississippi ... or where they were in 2015.

We're not in 2015 anymore and neither are they.

Nevada has increased the state's share of school spending by 7 percent (and that's about half of overall school spending in the Silver State) and now is in the $8,700 range. Oklahoma just passed a whopping $450 million dollar tax increase and added another $91 million for schools on top of the tax. That works out to about $655 per pupil in additional funding, and they went screaming past Arizona.

So we fell back behind them again.

It leaves us with Mississippi, a state we seem to have legitimately passed.

  • 46. Nevada $8,746
  • 47. Oklahoma $8,730
  • 48. Arizona $8,631
  • 49. Mississippi $8,557

Cue the champagne corks and noise makers. If the Magnolia State is now in our rearview mirror, Arizona should understand policy makers there have their foot on the clutch and are preparing to shift.

Mississippi looked for all the world to be heading for a shot in the arm to K-12 this year. Then Senate Republicans in that state scuttled a reworking of the school funding formula passed by the House and supported by the governor. That's the asterisk. If Mississippi can get its act together they will go shooting past Arizona again and we'll be right back at No. 49.

On schools and shellfish

It's easy to get lost in the rankings and lose track of the key question. Should Arizona make the same investment the rest of the states make in primary and secondary education? Three years ago, the range of of that investment spanned the distance between less than $7,000 in Utah in 2015 to more than $21,800 per year.

The District of Columbia, Alaska and New York spend wildly on K-12 (to the tune of $18,000 to $20,000 per student) without the results to show for it. Utah spends less than any state in the country but ranks well in quality of schools.

Arizona? Not so much. McKinsey and Associates, one of the top consulting firms in the country, ranked the states' schools and put Arizona at No. 43. The National Assessment of Education Progress testing of the state's 4th and 8th graders routinely score well below the national average.

School funding is like crab legs. You can spend a ridiculous amount of money on the single greatest food on earth. Go to a restaurant, and the price will run $50, $60, $70 bucks on a pound of deliciousness. Cook them at home, and they cost $15 for a pound and steaming them in your kitchen works just as well as having them steamed for you at a restaurant. Melt some butter. Squeeze some lemon. Feed on some hedonistic shell fish.

It can cost big or be had for a reasonable amount of money.

On the other hand, try to convince guests that the imitation KrabMeat you bought for $2 bucks a pound is just as good as what can be had at a seafood joint. That's what the Arizona Legislature has been trying to do for years with its "Val-u-pak approach Skool finance."

The argument ain't playing like it once did. The state's conservative leadership knows this and is trying to play catch up on the cheap. Voters will decide if that's good enough come November.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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