Education Funding

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A new report shows that Arizona had the third-highest state funding cuts per pupil since the recession started. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows state funding for school districts has fallen an inflation-adjusted 17-percent since 2008. Education-funding expert Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials will talk about education funding in our state.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and well come to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A new report puts Arizona as the third-ranked state in the country in terms of funding cuts per pupil since the beginning of the recession in 2008. Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials is here now to talk about the report and education funding in general. Good to see you again.

Chuck Essigs: Thanks for having me.

Ted Simons: National report, give us more information. What did this thing look at?

Chuck Essigs: This is a group that each year looks at a lot of monies that are spent in different states supporting children and students, and they've done this same report for a number of years, and it pretty much looks at how much spending authority is available in the different states.

Ted Simons: This is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. What do we know about this group?

Chuck Essigs: They're probably a group that would be looked at as being in support of more monies being spent and more services being available to children.

Ted Simons: So if they saw Arizona is ranked number three they would say that's not a good thing.

Chuck Essigs: It is not a good thing in their opinion.

Ted Simons: What did the report find, besides the third ranking? What's happening here?

Chuck Essigs: What's interesting is that last year at this time if we would have been talking, we would have been number one in the percentage of cuts. And Alabama and Oklahoma have now moved ahead of us. At least we're starting to make progress. I think people need to put it in perspective. Arizona probably went through the most difficult economic times of any state. So cuts like this were probably inevitable or to be expected.

Ted Simons: I have to say, when I saw Alabama was higher than Arizona, I didn't know they had money, education money to cut in Alabama, much less more than Arizona did. But you're saying they spend more per pupil than we do.

Chuck Essigs: They do. The only two states that currently don't spend more than we do are Idaho and Utah.

Ted Simons: We were number one and now we're number three because of the $82 million --

Chuck Essigs: Because the state legislature started to make some inroads, they put $82 million in inflation funding, they did put some money in for school safety, so they're starting to move back, but they have a long way to go.

Ted Simons: We talk about Arizona, the rankings state by state. Can you compare apples to apples here? Is this the kind of thing where a third ranking does mean something or is it amorphous?

Chuck Essigs: I think the ranking is very legitimate. If you look at the state reports from the joint legislative budget committee, they show if you take state, federal, and local monies and put them together we're down 17% from 2008. So it's almost identical percentage.

Ted Simons: As far as the JLBC numbers as well, 25% in direct state funding. Correct?

Chuck Essigs: I think it's better to look at state, federal, and local together. Because there is -- local districts have a qualifying tax rate and contribute some money, certainly the cuts to state were significant, but I think the best thing is to look at the total number of dollars available.

Ted Simons: Are we talking capital funds, administrative funds, bus drivers? What --

Chuck Essigs: When you talk to 17% at the state level, that includes capital, a lot of the larger cuts were in capital. It's capital, operational, bus drivers, teachers. But capital has been a major area.

Ted Simons: Is this something -- 17% down from 2008. Third worst as far as spending is concerned. Third best, regardless of how your perspective might be. But are we seeing correlating differences in student achievement and/or performance?

Chuck Essigs: I think what you're seeing is larger class size, because districts can't afford as many teachers, and on the technology side with the cuts in capital, you're seeing less equipment being available to students. So it's never the amount of money you spend, it's how you spend those monies. But with less dollars you have less monies to support your program, for example, capital in this state is really in trouble. The amount of capital funding per pupil is down, cut by $230 million. And districts on a per pupil basis have less money, about 50% of the formula money they had in 1998-1999. So capital is really taking a hit.

Ted Simons: How are districts handling that?

Chuck Essigs: They have equipment to last longer, they buy less equipment that's needed, they try and stretch the buses out so they last longer. Same thing you'd do in your house, and sometimes that's not good, especially in technology where you need to be state-of-the-art whenever possible.

Ted Simons: I asked if we were seeing correlating drops in student performance. Is this -- I think some see this as an opportunity -- All right, the dollars aren't there, they're not likely to be there in the near future, this is an opportunity to change structure, to change paradigms, logistics, whatever the word you want to use, and find a way to make it work better. Does that make sense?

Chuck Essigs: I think the idea of making things work better certainly makes sense, but the problem is Arizona has always been a very low-spending state. And to lock Arizona in at a level that's 17% below where it was a couple of years ago when we were near the bottom of the country is not going to provide adequate resources to compete. With common core, our students in Arizona are going to have to compete with students in just about all the other states that are above us. It's not fair to ask the districts and students to compete with less resources available.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about common core. How does that change the dynamic?

Chuck Essigs: Hopefully the state will pay for the test, which is part of implementing the common core, but then districts really need to up their technology equipment and right now it's going to be very hard for them to do that with the resources they have.

Ted Simons: Is there a movement at the legislature to go in that direction? What are you seeing? Obviously the $82 million in inflation spending, we saw that it was helped along by court decisions, but we saw that. Are we going to see more of that?

Chuck Essigs: Last session Governor Brewer and her staff proposed monies to help districts implement common core. And the legislature decided not to fund that. They did fund inflation, which was a good thing, but she was requesting additional money beyond that to give districts the support they need to do a good job of getting common core off and running.

Ted Simons: What were the reasons for saying no?

Chuck Essigs: I don't know.

Ted Simons: Yeah. Just like that. From what I've heard, we don't have the money. We can't afford this. This is that a valid argument?

Chuck Essigs: Not when you start to look at Arizona and its economic recovery. We're starting to start to see surpluses in the state budget coming up in 2015 and 2016. And the legislature, they shouldn't be blamed for a lot of cuts they had to make during these terrible economic times, but they should be responsible to restore as much resources to districts as they can as the economy recovers.

Ted Simons: Are we seeing businesses, industry, are we seeing those folks come out and say -- Because we hear that a lot on this program. We're not -- We can't find people qualified or educated enough to do X, Y, and Z. Is that message getting to the legislature, and if so, how is that message being received?

Chuck Essigs: The message they should be providing to the legislature is that to balance out, we just don't need tax cuts. We need additional services, we need a more educated work force. And we want you to fund schools adequately so that work force is available to us. That should be important to them and they should express that to the legislators.

Ted Simons: Last question -- What do we all take from this report?

Chuck Essigs: That we are making some improvement. But we've got a long way to go to get back to where we need to be to be competitive.

Ted Simons: So we're not number one anymore.

Chuck Essigs: We're not number one, that's good that we're number three. We ought to -- It would be nice to see us each year drop down on that list farther and farther.

Ted Simons: Chuck, it's good to see you.

Chuck Essigs: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Chuck Essigs:Education-Funding Expert, Arizona Association of School Business Officials;

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