Funding AZ’s Future with
Bake Sales and Wishlists
Year after year, Arizona communities are forced to fill the funding void left by the Arizona legislature. The dearth of adequate state funding for K12 education has forced local communities to find other sources of education funding – or to go without entirely, creating massive inequities statewide.
Arizona students are funded at the 3rd lowest level in the United States. Ranked 48th out of 50 states. Arizona lawmakers’ refusal to fully fund our public education system leaves our kids $4.5 billion behind the national per-pupil funding average. This chronic and dramatic lack of state funding has a direct, negative impact on Arizona’s local communities.
Unlike other states, Arizona does not fund full-day kindergarten nor offer universal free school meals. Instead, Arizona has the most crowded classrooms and the worst teacher turnover rate in the nation. The total failure of our state government to fund our public schools leaves local communities with the bill to fund an inequitable, unpredictable, and unstable system that fails to give kids the robust education they deserve.
Despite these massive handicaps, national standardized testing results show that Arizona kids perform on par with the national average in both reading and math. This is due to a Herculean effort from teachers, parents, and school communities to provide the funding our elected officials will not. But these local funding sources are not reliable year-over-year and do not reach all students.
Arizona provides equalization payments to districts with lower property tax revenue that are intended to eliminate inequity between districts. However, the overall lack of funding from the state forces schools and their communities to search for other sources of funding to fill the gaps. This causes new funding inequities to emerge; while some school districts are able to cobble together additional financial support from well-off parents or by passing bonds and overrides, districts in lower-income or rural areas are often left behind.
Community Funding: Bonds and Overrides
One way Arizonans have found to provide additional education funding is through bonds and overrides. These voter-approved initiatives generate additional property tax revenue to fund projects and operations for local school districts beyond what the state provides.
Unfortunately, not all districts are able to pass bonds and overrides. A 12 News report found that although most metro Phoenix districts have been successful in passing bonds and overrides, exurban and rural communities have more difficulties. Of the last six attempts to pass a bond or override in Cave Creek Unified School District, for example, only one has been successful. This has a tangible impact: Cave Creek’s average teacher salary of $50,000 is anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000 lower than the surrounding districts, all of which have been able to pass bonds and overrides.
The above map shows the success rate for the last six attempts to pass bonds and overrides in three different districts.
Bonds are a type of voter-approved funding that school districts can use for capital expenses, such as computers and other 21st-century technology, updated learning materials, school buses, the construction of new school facilities, building & safety improvements, and most importantly, maintenance. The state of Arizona does not provide districts with enough money to maintain their facilities – an issue that has gotten so severe, the state was sued in 2017. That case is set to go to trial in May 2024. Bonds allow districts to provide safe facilities, but only in areas where voters pass these measures. This means a wealthy suburban school is much more likely able to repair an air conditioning unit or bus than a school in a poorer rural district.
Voter-approved overrides authorize a school district to exceed its budget by up to 15% for seven years using local property tax revenues. Unlike bonds, this funding can be used for operational expenses such as extracurriculars, student programs, and staff salaries. The latter is of particular importance due to Arizona’s teacher retention crisis, with almost 3000 unfilled positions as of January 2023. Offering higher salaries and smaller class sizes allows school districts to recruit highly qualified teachers who may not currently be teaching.
It’s important to note that not all states run bonds or overrides. These measures are more common in states where public education has been defunded at the state level. In other words: they’re a form of desperation — a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
Parent Funding: Parent Groups and Donation Drives
Districts in higher-income suburban and exurban areas have another source of funding they can rely on: parents. When the state fails its constitutional duty to fund public schools, oftentimes parents in these wealthier areas work to ensure kids have what they need. Which is great — for those kids — but leaves kids in other communities without.
Parent groups are the foundation of many local schools, filling a variety of needs such as planning school events, running donation drives, holding teacher appreciation events and, of course, raising money. In fact, the National Parent Teacher Association is the largest volunteer child advocacy association in the nation. But because the legislature has abdicated its duties, these parents are now stuck hosting endless bake sales just to pay for the bare necessities.
Parent groups used to raise funding for enrichment activities, such as field trips to Washington DC, murals, updated sports facilities, and other “extras.” But because state funding has substantially decreased over the past few decades in Arizona, schools now rely on parent group funding for necessities, like instructional staff, academic programs, and other services that districts can no longer afford.
It is the state’s job to fund education by equitably dispersing funding to ensure that all Arizona students receive a quality education that meets their individual needs. While wealthy school districts may still be able to scrape by due to parent fundraising, the abdication of this responsibility has left school districts in lower-income and rural areas completely behind. More than 70% of the nation’s wealthiest parent groups serve schools where less than 10% of students come from low-income families. Parents in lower-income areas of Arizona often do not have disposable income to donate to schools, or the time or means to participate in large-scale donation drives. In the face of severe budget cuts, these schools must somehow manage with less and kids pay the price.
Teacher Funding: Crowdsourcing for Classrooms
Imagine a surgeon needing to either buy their own scalpels or be left to use dull, 10-year-old scalpels her hospital can’t afford to replace. Sound ridiculous? Something similar is happening every single day in Arizona schools. When the state does not provide enough funding for necessary supplies, teachers shoulder the cost, further reducing their already disproportionately low salaries.
This self-funded classroom model creates massive disparities, too. Although some teachers may be able to invest in their classrooms, most educators simply cannot do so. While a teacher from a well-off household might be able to afford to spend thousands of dollars per year on materials for students, most teachers must rely on Amazon Wishlists and the kindness of strangers.
This is unfair to teachers and students alike. A teacher’s ability to spend out-of-pocket should not affect the quality of their classroom or the tools students have available to them. And regardless, teachers should never have to spend their own salaries on essential items that can and should be funded by the state.
Arizona Kids Deserve a World-Class Education
The quality of a student’s education should not depend on their zip code, the income level of their community, or their teacher’s ability to use their own money on their classroom. It is the job of Arizona lawmakers to ensure all schools are funded adequately so that all schools can provide the amazing opportunities our students deserve.
It’s an unfortunate truth that the Arizona legislature has walked away from public education; the Republican majority is focused on propping up private school vouchers instead. Our state is projected to spend almost $1 billion on these vouchers in the next school year alone. Allocated properly, that money could be used for $300,000 in additional funding for every school in the state. Better is possible: we just need lawmakers with the courage to fulfill their constitutional duty to adequately fund our local public schools.