'We Have Not Solved Education Funding' — AZ Is Spending More On K-12 Education, But Is It Enough?
MARK BRODIE: Arizona is spending more on public education now than in years past, but not by as much as some advocates had hoped. A new report from the state Auditor General's Office finds Arizona spent a little more than $11,000 per student last year — that's $242 more than in 2019 and around $1,200 more than in 2018. Average teacher salaries have also increased each of the last four years, although other metrics, including the percentage of teachers in their first three years on the job and average years of teacher experience have remained relatively unchanged since 2017. With me to talk more about the numbers is Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children Arizona. And, Rebecca, what are your main takeaways from this report?
REBECCA GAU: Well, first of all, it's always great to see education funding increase in Arizona, so we're obviously very happy to see the increases and want to express gratitude to anyone and everyone involved in that process. But that said, we're still in the bottom six compared to other states with this data. We're still well below the national average. We still have work to do in Arizona on overall school funding.
BRODIE: So let me ask you about per-pupil spending, because this report looked at 2018, 2019 and 2020 here in Arizona. And we basically went up over that time from a little less than $10,000 to a little more than $11,000 in 2020, which is still, we should say the 2020 numbers are still below the 2018 national average. What does that tell you?
GAU: Well, it tells us one thing and then it creates a question, right? So it tells us that we still have work to do. We're still well below the old national average, and that's not good enough for Arizona's economy. And then it asks the question, what did other states do? How did the national average change over the last two years? And so are we better off or are we worse off compared to other states that we compete with economically? We actually don't know the answer to that based on this report.
BRODIE: So let's look a little bit more closely at some of the numbers from here in Arizona. And the report breaks down operational spending. And this is things like instruction, student support, administration, transportation, food service, things like that. And between 2019 and 2020, Arizona added $231 per student in spending. It also looked at a 20-year comparison from 2001 to 2020, and Arizona added a little more than $1,200 per student. Is that considered a lot of money to change over a 20-year period?
GAU: Well, it's basically $60 a year, I think. So, you know, what is $60 per year, per kid get? Well, it's better than losing money. You know, I think at this point, teachers and school officials say, "$60? I'll take it." But I think overall, when you look at our continued place at the bottom of the state rankings, our continued teacher shortage — and a lot of the operational expenses are instructional, and most of that is teacher salary. So you look at our continuing teacher shortage, you look at our low teacher pay, you look at the fact that the promises of the teacher pay increases haven't been met. I mean, it's better than nothing, but it is not what we need for our state. It's not what we promise employers they're going to get from an educated workforce. It's not what our state needs to thrive.
BRODIE: Well, when you talk about teachers in the teacher shortage, that clearly is still a problem. Teacher pay has been such a big issue, especially at the Capitol, over the last few years. And this report looked at average teacher salary and found that between 2017 and 2020, the average teacher's salary went from a little more than $48,000 a year to almost $55,000 a year, which seems like a fairly good increase. But is it actually a good increase considering where we started?
GAU: Again, I know that there are teachers who are very grateful for any increases, and I certainly don't want to diminish that. But we've known even when the governor's funding plan was being debated originally, we knew it wasn't going to take us very far up in the rankings related to teacher pay. And this is very much about competing with other states for quality teachers. So again, we still have work to do. We have not solved education funding or teacher pay or teacher shortage with the investments of the past. Now, Prop. 208 should change that if it stays pure, and there are lots of threats to it right now — that should change that quite a bit. But current state with the report and the data they're talking about pre-Prop. 208, it absolutely was not enough. Absolutely not.
BRODIE: Let me ask you about one other number in this report, which is classroom spending versus non-classroom spending, because this has been a big point of contention at the Legislature over the last number of years. And this report found that almost 70% of education money is being spent in the classroom versus 30% on non-classroom spending. And they define classroom spending as instruction, student support and instruction support. Is that number kind of in line with what you have seen in your research, or is that number surprising to you at all?
GAU: That's not a surprising number. I've been aware of that number. Everyone in the education world knows that that's the actual, legit number, despite what some naysayers might try to say about, "Oh, less than half goes to the classroom." And we all know that that's just not true. Unfortunately, it can be a good soundbite. And during a political campaign or other, you know, for other reasons, people grab that number, even though it was never accurate. But there's an additional piece of that. The 30% that's non-classroom, 4% was transportation. So that's legit. Like, 4% was food service. That's legit. I think 10% or 12% was facilities. That's legit. So the number that everybody gets worried about when they call education top-heavy is that administration number. So that's how much the superintendents get paid, how much the district office staff gets paid, maybe office supplies or things like that. So seeing that number be only 10% is, I think, a pretty good indicator of an efficient system. If you think about a normal business and what you would call kind of that operation overhead — you know, what you pay for your HR services and your legal services and your CEO — that's often in the 17% range for a business, right? So having that be 10% for education, I think shows that we're doing things pretty efficiently.
BRODIE: All right, that is Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children Arizona. Rebecca, always nice to talk to you. Thank you.
GAU: Thank you so much. Mark, it is always a pleasure.