This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed to protect it.
Our staff doesn’t take democracy — and our constitutional right to do our jobs — for granted. We hope you don’t either. What concerns you most about the current state of our democracy? How would you like our community to respond? Fill out this quick form.
Arizona has been arguing about and experimenting with education funding for what seems like decades.
The state has been in the national spotlight at times for being a leader in school choice, for a teacher strike, and other times for being last, or next to last, in per-pupil funding among states.
Education funding is complicated and hard to understand, especially if you’re new to Arizona. Mix in politics and it can be really messy.
About 80% of Arizona kids go to traditional public schools, with the rest at public charter schools, private schools and homeschooling.
About this guide
Political rhetoric is loud right now around education funding in Arizona. Voters will see a lot of punchy taglines like #saveourschools from the left and #power2parents from the right.
With this guide, Arizona Luminaria wants to shine a light on some of the facts and nuances of education funding, including where Arizonans agree and disagree — so you can make your own decisions on your ballot.
Mail-in ballots will arrive in mid-October and Election Day is Nov. 8. Check your voter registration status or request a mail-in ballot here.
Education is a top issue for Arizona voters, according to a survey of 500 likely voters by the nonpartisan Center for the Future of Arizona and the pro-education group Education Forward Arizona.
Voters agree on some basics, according to the survey:
- All schools should have quality teachers and principals.
- All schools should have the resources necessary to deliver quality education.
- All students should be proficient in reading by the end of third grade.
From there, we start to disagree a bit about how to get it done.
- 98% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans support increasing teacher pay.
- 97% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans support increasing school funding.
So what can voters do? First up: Understand the basics.
What are we actually spending on education?
Short answer: Around $13,000 per year per student.
When you combine local, state, and federal funding sources, it works out to an estimated $13,306 per student for the 2023 fiscal year, according to the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee (which is like the nonpartisan analysis department for our state Legislature).
That’s about 50% more than we were spending per student in 2014.
Is that enough money? More on that in a minute.
How do our tax dollars get to classrooms?
K-12 education is funded by different kinds of taxes.
Roseanne Lopez says you can picture three buckets. Lopez is a former associate superintendent and school principal who also teaches school finance to future principals at the University of Arizona College of Education. This is how she explains the basics of education funding.
In the local bucket, there is money from property taxes, bonds, individual tax credits, and donations to and from foundations.
The state bucket has operations funding based on the number and types of students in each school, and capital funding for school facilities. This makes up around $7,600 of the $13,000 per student per year.
We are participating in Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed…
“I was one of those people who kind of lived in my own bubble,” Kara Janssen, a Smart Justice Organizer at American Civil Liberties…
In the federal bucket, there are funds meant to address equity around issues like poverty, languages, enrichment programs and special education. There are also one-time funds for pandemic relief and other special funds.
Each bucket has different rules about how it can be tapped for spending, Lopez says. It gets complicated.
“That money trickles down to students, and above each student is a dollar figure,” says Dustin Williams, Pima County Superintendent of Schools. This is an election position and Williams is a Democrat.
Another thing to know is that Arizona’s funding formula is old, and maybe outdated, from the ’70s and ’80s, Williams says.
A lot of states reformed their school funding around that time, after a series of federal court cases that required states to make changes, says Matt Beienburg, Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative free-market public policy research and litigation organization.
So the funding formula hasn’t been revisited for more than 40 years.
There have been efforts to streamline and simplify the formula to make it easier to understand, Beienburg says, but there’s always political resistance. That’s because any changes would benefit some school districts a bit and hurt others a bit. That makes reform difficult.
Mix in politics, and things get messy.
How does Arizona education funding compare to other states?
To compare apples to apples, Lopez looks at public K-12 spending as a percentage of state resources and whether the resources are enough to meet educational outcome goals.
Those measures are tracked in the School Finance Indicators Database, by the Albert Shanker Institute and Rutgers University.
“When you compare Arizona to other places in the country, it gets pretty evident that we have a problem,” Lopez says.
Arizona ranks next-to-last among states in the percentage of state resources that go to K-12 schools. And Arizona ranks 41 of 49 states in the measure of whether the resources are enough.
“Across the entire state, 79.1% of AZ students attend districts with spending below estimated adequate levels,” according to the Indicators report.
State-by-state rankings aren’t perfect and represent a snapshot in time, Beienburg says. The data from the Indicators report, for example, compares states in the 2018-19 school year. And between 2019 and 2022, Arizona has substantially increased funding.
What’s the 2-minute catch-up on the history of the education funding fight in Arizona?
A lot has happened. If you’re new to Arizona, or if you haven’t been paying much attention until now, let’s get caught up.
“We’ve seen, over the last 20 years, a number of repeated efforts — either of voter-approved measures or legislatively adopted measures — of significant funding increases for K-12,” Beienburg says.
Let’s rewind to the year 2000. That’s when voters approved Prop. 301 to create a new sales tax to collect millions for schools.
Then in the Great Recession, around 2009, the state’s general fund shrank by about a third and there was less money to spend, including spending on schools. Deep cuts were made.
Next voters approved Prop. 123 in 2016, sending millions more to schools.
Then came the Red For Ed movement in 2018 and we saw teachers strike over a pay raise.
The Governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature responded by promising to restore $1 billion of education funding cuts since the recession and a 20% raise in teacher pay by 2020.
“That was one of the biggest infusions of money we’d seen in a long time,” Williams says. “It was unheard of.”
But school districts didn’t spend all of the money on increasing teacher pay as was intended, Beienburg says.
Also in 2018, the Legislature renewed Prop. 301 (the one that created a sales tax), which was set to expire.
But in the renewal, they left out a clause related to a previous voter-approved spending limit, which has caused an annual school funding crisis as schools bump into the limit each year. (This problem could be solved in the future by the Legislature or by voters, but it’s not on your ballot this year.)
Then in 2020, voters passed Prop. 208, an income tax on high-income taxpayers to generate more dollars for schools. But it was ruled unconstitutional in March this year.
Meanwhile, Arizona teachers are paid less than teachers in other states and less than other college-educated professionals in Arizona, which has created a teacher shortage.
What’s at the heart of the political conflict, and who should be responsible for deciding how our schools are funded?
Here’s where politics comes in.
It boils down to what we should be spending money on, how much spending is enough, and who should decide how it is spent.
In general, Democrats believe the Legislature is responsible and should allocate more dollars to K-12 education.
The argument goes like this: “If you want to see more teachers in your school, more para-professionals, more personnel, you need funding. If you don’t provide the funding, you have shortages. And if you have shortages, then ultimately the students aren’t getting the best education,” says Williams.
The state Legislature is ultimately responsible for the funding formula and the budget. When the Legislature doesn’t go far enough, voters might step in with a ballot initiative. But an important nuance here is that lawmakers can’t touch things voters have decided, in effect locking them away from change by lawmakers.
“So you have the voters saying one thing and you have this majority Republican-held legislature doing their own thing,” which is what happened with Prop. 208, Williams says.
On the other side, Republicans in general believe in local control and limited spending.
“It ultimately comes down to this question of what is needed,” says Beienburg. “Is it more money from the state and from taxpayers, or is it that we need better leadership, better accountability, more efficient stewardship of those resources at the district level?”
“When it comes to accountability of the funding, it lies almost entirely at the school district level,” Beienburg says. “They have local school boards and a superintendent who basically functions as the CEO. They are the ones who essentially get a check from the state and the feds, put together a budget and say ‘here’s how we want to spend it.’”
Conservatives are getting skeptical because school board elections tend to be heavily influenced by teachers unions, Beienburg says. “So you end up with a fox policing the hen house a little bit,” with elected officials mostly representing establishment perspectives, he says.
So conservatives like local control, but if local officials are taking talking points from a national teachers group rather than taking into account local parents’ perspectives, you get local conservatives trying to take back some power.
Which races should a voter pay attention to if education funding is a top priority?
“I don’t think people understand the power of their vote and how much it makes a difference to children,” Lopez says. “It’s huge.”
Different elected officials have different ways to decide and influence school spending. Education Forward Arizona has an org chart that explains these roles as they relate to education.
For state-level races, you can see who will be on your ballot, along with candidate biographies and contact information, using the voter dashboard from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. You’ll enter your address and then click “what’s on my ballot.” Click “view info” under each candidate’s photo to see details.
Let’s start toward the top of your ballot.
“Everything comes down to 90 individuals — 60 representatives and 30 senators — and one governor who decides the budget,” says Williams. For these roles, a key question is whether they would raise taxes and increase spending or whether they have a different plan for raising per-pupil funding and teacher pay, he says.
The teachers’ union wants you to pay attention to legislative races too.
“Arizona educators know the stakes of this election. For years, we’ve been fighting for the funding and support our public school educators and students need. We know that the only way to do that is by electing education champions to our Legislature,” Arizona Education Association President Marisol Garcia said in a statement.
In addition to their role in policy and budgeting, the Governor also appoints the members of the State Board of Education, which makes policy.
Also on your ballot is the State Superintendent of Schools. This official is more of an administrator than a decision maker or a changemaker when it comes to school funding, but they have some influence over the school districts and work with state standards.
You can see a list of debates and recordings of debates for these state-level offices at the Citizens Clean Elections Commission website.
At the local level, you’ll see many nonpartisan school board seats, plus questions about bonds and overrides that would give schools more money. For more on these races, visit the Pima County Superintendent of Schools website (or your county superintendent’s website).
For bonds and overrides, you can ask what the money would be spent on and why it’s needed on top of other kinds of funding. Education Forward Arizona has a guide to understanding bonds and overrides here.
The Center for the Future of Arizona has suggested questions for candidates about school funding. School board candidates typically have websites and social media pages dedicated to their campaigns to contact candidates to get your questions answered.
For school board candidates, you might ask what they would change in the school district budget, what their spending priorities would be, and how teachers should be paid (equally, based on seniority, based on performance, etc).
The school funding fight will go on but voters can make a difference.
“Despite this overall sense of pessimism, voters want something to be done to support education,” Education Forward Arizona CEO Rich Nickel said in a press statement. “Voters continue to prioritize education and want to see their candidates discussing and taking action on the issues that matter most to improving student outcomes.”