Education town hall sheds light on public school funding issues

Flagstaff     The struggle to provide adequate funding for public schools in Arizona has been going on for years. The recession in the early 2000’s created a perfect storm for forces that would undermine funding for Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students. Beth Lewis, Chair of SOSAZ (Save Our Schools Arizona) and Jen Hernandez with Expect More Arizona, presented a town hall event on Saturday October 26, at Coconino High School in Flagstaff,  highlighting both the actions that got us here as well as the work that will have to take place to ensure adequate funding for our public schools. Both organizations have positioned themselves as the counterpoint to paid lobbyists intent on diverting funding away from public schools.

School vouchers are seen by some as one of the main reasons our public schools have been underfunded. On Saturday, Lewis stated, “funding for public schools has been incrementally eroded for decades”.  She shared that the School Tuition Organization (STO) program started in 1997 which is a a tax credit program that grew from $1.6M in 1998 to $160M in 2018. 93% of the funding goes to religious schools. The money can be used for tuition, books, uniforms, etc. While individuals can only give up to $2,000, multiple parties can give to a child, allowing in many cases for fully subsidizing a student’s private education. Then in 2011, ESA vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) came along. These are vouchers from the Arizona general fund that are designed to be used to “opt-out” of the public schools, sending students instead to private schools or even for home schooling. These vouchers range in amount from a base of about $5000 to more than $30,000 for children with disabilities.

There are some differences between district public schools and their charter and private counterparts. Most notably, district schools are required, and indeed were always intended, to serve all children in a given school district, while charters are not held to the same requirement and private schools have free reign to deny entry to anyone according to their rules.

District public schools provide english language learning (ELL) and special education services according to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run. They do not always provide ELL or SPED services. NAU Professor Emeritus David McKell who attended the town hall on Saturday quoted a survey taken by NAU professors stating they overwhelmingly send their kids to charter schools. Private schools have private control and private funding, as well as the public monies from voucher and tax credit programs. Private schools do not have to follow the federal IDEA laws and they are free to pick and choose which students to allow into their school.

When parents become aware of the lack of funding in their children’s public school, their first impulse is to go to the principal and see what can be done. The next stop is their local school board. What parents then come to realize is that any discussion of funding must be taken up at the state legislative level. Arizona’s general fund currently takes in approximately $25 billion, but this is reduced by $14 billion in tax credits and cuts, leaving only $11 billion. There is an understanding that if the tax cuts could be reviewed to determine current appropriateness, more money could be found to fund public education. Currently 42% of the general fund goes toward education in Arizona. While that sounds like a lot, some states have double the general fund revenue and therefore double the public education budget.

Additional effects of low public education funding include, problems with teacher recruitment and retention, school building deterioration, increase in college tuition and higher debt after graduation, lack of access to early education, and stronger reliance on bonds and overrides. Many involved in public education see bonds and overrides as a last resort that transfers the burden of funding education from the state to the local school districts.

  • Arizonas public schools are 49th in median teacher salaries,
  • Arizona has the second-most crowded class sizes. Arizona teachers when polled stated they would take smaller class sizes over an increase in income, highlighting their commitment to our children.
  • Arizona has the highest teacher turn over in the US.
  • Every day in Arizona, 3400 classrooms (70,000 kids) are without a permanent teacher, taught instead by substitutes of various abilities.

Strong public schools can raise property values, improve the State’s economy, and assist businesses in recruiting a well educated workforce. Social media and mailings can get the word out, but Saturday we were reminded that grassroots face-to-face efforts provide results. Both organization’s websites, and, provide background information, ways to be involved and statistics regarding funding public schools in Arizona. Expect More Arizona’s “Request to Speak” system is a place to check out more info.

SOSAZ will be conducting an online webinar style town hall event on November 6. From their website: “Have a question about Arizona’s public education funding crisis you’ve been dying to ask? Have an idea about supporting public schools that you’d like to share? Join SOSAZ for a live Tele Town Hall where we’ll discuss the issues, share insights, and collect feedback.  to register.


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