Advocates & lawmakers sound alarms as Census data shows Arizona lagging behind in K-12 education

Jeremy Beren

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By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Phoenix) — The United States Census Bureau has crunched the numbers, and public school advocates in Arizona continue to foster deep concerns about the quality of education the state's children are receiving.

In 2020, the state of Arizona spent $8,785 per K-12 public school student — a modest 1.8 percent increase from the Census Bureau's 2019 financial data. Still, Arizona's figure ranks above only Idaho ($8,272 per pupil) and Utah ($8,366) in the newest data, and both states saw greater bumps in resources committed to educating their students between 2019 and 2020 — Idaho at 3.6 percent, Utah at 4.4 percent. New Mexico, Arizona's neighbor to the east, saw an 11 percent increase in per-pupil current spending in the same time frame.

Per-pupil spending covers a number of different areas, including teacher pay, classroom supplies, special education, and school counseling. At $13,494, the national per-pupil spending average is more than one-and-a-half times higher than what Arizona provided in 2020. Connecticut and New York are among the most-generous states, pacing the nation's elementary-secondary public education.

The Census Bureau figures report that between 2015 and 2020 — under a Republican governor well-known for favoring private schools — Arizona's per-student spending grew more than 17 percent. But even this figure falls below the 18.5 percent national average, and Gov. Doug Ducey slashed taxes for Arizona's wealthiest residents after voters passed the Invest in Education Act in 2020.

The Maricopa County Superior Court killed the measure — better known as Prop 208 — in March.

Meanwhile, salaries doled out to Arizona's K-12 educators also rank among the country's lowest, according to the Census Bureau statistics. In addition, only public school employees in Texas ($1,295) receive less money in benefits than their Arizona counterparts ($1,710) on a per-student basis. Administrative costs in Arizona's public schools are also among the lowest in the entire nation.

With a state budget surplus greater than $5 billion waiting to be used, the Census Bureau's latest data compilation has Arizona's top education proponents feeling even more urgency. They believe the Arizona legislature must act decisively — and quickly — to reinforce and enhance the state's long-suffering public schools.

"Our schools are running on empty (and) with budget negotiations underway, this is the time for our lawmakers to fully fund our schools," public education advocacy organization Save Our Schools Arizona tweeted on Monday.

State Senator Christine Marsh is a longtime English instructor in the Scottsdale Unified School District and was named Arizona's Teacher of the Year in 2016. She told NewsBreak that the time for waiting is over, that students in K-12 public schools need help the state simply is not offering.

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"It's just confirmation of the crisis that our schools are facing. I think it represents just part of a larger-scale attack from the right-wing politicians on our schools and our teachers," Sen. Marsh said. "It is clear that the right-wing politicians will not be satisfied until they have run every teacher out of this state and have closed the doors of every single public school in Arizona.

"We have the worst metrics, or among the worst metrics, for every statistic facing our public schools. That's a shame, and it doesn't have to be that way. These are intentional choices."

Marsh continues to teach part-time and receives an up-close look at how right-wing policy choices damage the state's public schools each year. She told NewsBreak that in Arizona, class sizes are cumulatively eight students larger than the national average — and instructors are struggling to keep up, especially without a financial safety net.

Marsh said that her son, in his first year as a sheriff's deputy in Denver, made more money than her. She had already been teaching for 27 years by that time.

"I don't think that people necessarily realize — unless they are directly involved — just how bad it is. Just how many teachers are leaving the profession, the substitute teacher shortage, the class size, the way our kids are suffering from the fact that we have among the highest class sizes in the entire nation," Marsh said.

"That was a large part of my Teacher of the Year platform. We have to reduce class size ... High school teachers are looking at anywhere between 170 and close to 200 kids throughout a day."

Marsh says Senate Democrats match her motivation to strengthen public school systems that are falling behind. But as a member of the minority party, ambition and determination to revitalize public education in Arizona can only get Marsh so far.

"We're gonna keep fighting, our kids need it," she said. "You keep fighting whether you know you're going to win the battle or not."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

Phoenix, AZ
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