Arizona’s Schools Face a $4.5 Billion Deficit

Arizona’s Schools Face a
$4.5 Billion Deficit

Reports show that Arizona schools are facing a $4.5 billion annual deficit as compared to other states. According to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau and Education Law Center, Arizona students are receiving at least $4,200 less yearly than their national peers, despite federal COVID relief dollars and recent investments from the state. For Arizona’s 1 million-plus students, this totals a $4.5 billion gap that significantly impacts students’ futures and directly fuels the state’s exploding teacher retention crisis.

Despite claiming “historic” investments, Arizona’s legislature has only recently backfilled 2008 recessionary cuts and matched inflation. The state’s K-12 funding ranked 48th in the nation in 2008, and we remain bottom of the barrel in per-student spending today. 

What could $4.5 billion do for Arizona schools each year?

  • $1.2 billion in teacher & staff salaries. Arizona’s teacher and staff pay is $1.2 billion less than the national average. Rep. Judy Schwiebert (D-2) introduced a bill this year to rectify this shortage, but HB2779 has thus far been ignored. 

  • $1 billion in class size reduction. Arizona’s classrooms are the second most crowded in the nation. Students suffer when they can’t get the individual attention they need, and burnout is common among educators with higher class sizes. However, hiring additional teachers and building new classrooms is extremely expensive and would require at least a $1 billion annual  investment to bring class sizes to the national average. 
  • $1 billion for school facilities and transportation. Major investments are needed to build modern bus fleets, address rural transportation needs, and fix crumbling school buildings across the state. After years of systematic underfunding so chronic it prompted a lawsuit, our cumulative loss is close to $6 billion. 
  • $400 million for extracurriculars, arts, sports and programs. Many of the programs that help students thrive in school have been stripped due to chronic underfunding. Investing in these programs makes kids love school and helps grow a robustly educated future generation. 
  • $350 million is needed to address lack of special education funding. District and charter schools have significant gaps in how much special education funding they receive versus how much they need. The gap was $100 million in 2017 and continues to widen. Failing to address these massive gaps means either students go without services or schools must sweep funding from other budgets. 
  • $350 million for full-day kindergarten. Arizona only funds half-day kindergarten, meaning that for districts and charters to offer full-day programs, they must sweep money from elsewhere in their school budgets. 
  • $200 million in counselors, social workers and safety programs. Despite growing investments under former Supt. Hoffman’s administration, Arizona’s counselor-to-student ratio remains second highest in the nation. This means many students are not getting the mental health supports they desperately need, particularly post-pandemic. 

While this number may seem impossibly high, it’s critical to understand that politicians have systematically and dramatically shrunk Arizona’s budget over the past two decades. Now, our state is struggling to fund even basic state services — including public schools.

We Can’t Fill the Bucket if they Keep Poking Holes in It

Arizona’s budget currently hovers around $16.5 billion — but our tax giveaways (credits, carve-outs and expenditures) are around $24.5 billion. This means Arizona gives away far more than we take in. 

Meanwhile, our legislature continues to neglect public education, instead focusing on tax cuts and pushing bills forward that would slash revenues by billions of dollars: seeking to cut collections from corporations and businesses, eliminate taxes on groceries, utilities and rent, waive sales taxes for out-of-state vehicle buyers, grant tax credits for cryptocurrency, issue blanket rebates to every taxpayer in the state, and even repeal individual income and property taxes. Should these irresponsible proposals pass, Arizona’s ability to ever compete nationally in education funding or performance would become all but impossible. 

New Mexico Invests to Make Itself Nationally Competitive 

Dramatic positive changes are possible. Our neighbors in New Mexico are a prime example. The New Mexico legislature has made significant investments in K-12 education over the past few years, advancing from 39th in per-student spending to 28th in just a few short years. New Mexico spent $9,582 per child in FY2018, which grew to $11,332 in FY2020. New Mexico’s governor also passed major teacher raises in 2022 in order to ameliorate their teacher retention crisis.

Much of Governor Hobbs’ proposed budget would help us start to move in that direction, and we fully support the investments her office has laid out. So much more is needed to transform Arizona into a state that supports its most important citizens — its children — and builds an environment in which the next generation will not only survive, but thrive.

Serious solutions are required to address this serious funding problem. The repercussions will resonate for generations of students and for our state’s economic future. We call upon this legislature to work in a bipartisan fashion with Governor Hobbs to develop a 4-year plan to intentionally and strategically put Arizona on track to meet the national public education funding average. 

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