Arizona Education Funding: Classroom Spending Not Always Tied To Student Success

By Alexandra Olgin
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, March 2, 2016 - 7:19am
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(Photo by Alexandra Olgin - KJZZ News)

Students in Christine Best’s second-grade class sharpen their reading and writing skills by sounding out phrases. The phonic flashcards the kids are using and their teacher’s salary are both considered classroom spending. The desks and lights, however, aren’t, according to state auditors.

While these differences don’t matter to the 6- and 7-year-old students, they do matter to Peoria Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Ken Hicks.

“We use account codes for everything. It’s our lifeblood,” he said.

Hicks presents school spending data according to categories, such as instruction, administration and operational costs. Those figures from each public school district are used in an annual statewide auditor general report. He said education funding cuts over the past several years have created a drought situation.

“As the water hole continues to shrink, everybody starts looking around and questioning, what do you do?” he said. “Don’t be drinking my water.”

The scarcity of resources has led to increased scrutiny from lawmakers on school spending. 

But Hicks warns the way schools account for their expenditures is subject to federal guidelines. The state classifies spending based on standards from the National Center for Education Statistics to allow for a state-by-state comparison. From time to time these categories change. 

Hicks said the public will see the slice of classroom spending in Peoria decrease, while spending in another area will increase slightly. 

“It did not mean we hired a single administrator or that we gave the huge raises,” he said. 

The increase in administrative costs is a required coding change for retiree benefits. This report is limited to district schools. Charter schools aren’t included. The auditor general’s office cites state law as the reason. 

Types Of Schools By County

Hicks has a problem with that.

“You have a growing percent of our population of students that are going to a system that is not having the same oversight or the same transparency or the same accountability than the others.”

State auditors do compile charter school evaluations, but the office said it isn’t required to publish that report. The Arizona Charter School Association reported 15 percent of public school students go to charters. The state agency in charge of regulating these schools has some ability to sanction schools not meeting standards. 

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter School Association, said while she keeps an eye on classroom spending, parents are most concerned with the quality of education and not the exact dollar breakdown.  

“If schools are not doing a good job, parents will just stop sending kids. And that is the ultimate form of accountability,” she said. 

The Arizona Department of Education analyzes how charter schools compare to district schools in terms of spending. Districts spend more in the classroom per student compared with charters, but charters spend close to double what district schools spend on administration per student. Sigmund said that number can be a bit misleading, in part because of coding.  

“Charter schools personnel wear different hats,” she said. “The reason numbers may look like charters don’t spend as much in classroom is because an administrator may not capture herself as a teacher.” 

Both Sigmund and Hicks said the more important measure is student achievement.

Bruce Baker is a Rutgers University researcher specializing in school finance. He said there have been multiple studies trying to determine whether there is a magic number of dollars that should go to the classroom. 

“Those studies haven’t really come to a conclusion that greater administrative expense is bad,”  he said.

Baker’s research suggests spending on teacher salaries and class sizes most directly impacts student achievement. Arizona is among states with the least competitive teacher pay compared with peers at similar education levels. In 2014 the state had a student-per-teacher higher than the national average.

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