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AZ Central: Collaboration can fix Arizona's school funding gap

Opinion: A wide majority of Arizonans want the same things for schools, so why do we never get them? There's a simple reason for that.

Posted on April 07, 2022 • Category: Op-Ed
By Sybil Francis, President & CEO, Center for the Future of Arizona

Proposition 208 is dead. While a slim majority of voters wanted to tax high-income earners to increase funding for education, a Superior Court judge ruled the initiative ran afoul of the state’s spending limit for education.

Opponents rejoiced. Supporters fumed.

Left scratching their heads were the majority of Arizonans who want a better K-12 education system.

Arizonans have told us repeatedly that they support more funding for education. For instance, Gallup surveyed about 3,600 Arizonans for the Center for the Future of Arizona in 2020. Respondents ranked education and affordable health care as Arizona’s top priorities.

And 73% said we need to spend more money on K-12 public education. That includes majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans.

This tracks with elections in 20002010 and 2016, when voters approved tax increases or an increased distribution from the state land trust fund to support education.

Neither idea has a broad coalition behind it

Those election proposals shared another trait. They were backed by broad coalitions of teachers, parents and businesses.

Proposition 208 did not have such a broad coalition behind it. Neither does Senate Bill 1269, a proposal to drastically change Arizona’s school funding formula that was written behind closed doors, introduced in the Legislature at the last minute and has received little public input. Legislators are neither “deliberating carefully (nor) listening to the public,” as the Helios Foundation’s Paul Luna noted in a recent op-ed.

Why does this matter? When Arizonans do not come together to solve problems, we end up with narrowly designed partisan solutions that invite years of legal battles and millions of misspent dollars.

I do not write today to argue the merits of Proposition 208 or SB 1269. My purpose is to suggest that our civic and political leaders would better serve this state, its children and public education if they would take the time – as we do – to listen to all Arizonans and act in alignment with their priorities.

What Arizonans prioritize in our education system can help guide policymakers.

Ironically, there are many places where we agree 

In the Gallup survey, 90% of Arizonans said every child deserves an excellent education, regardless of family or personal circumstance. Nearly as many said a highly educated and skilled population is good for the economy. And looking over the next 10 years:

  • 92% said we should ensure that all public schools have high-quality teachers and principals.
  • 82% said we need to increase the number of high school graduates who enroll in universities, community colleges or technical/trade schools.
  • 79% said it’s important to close gaps in educational outcomes.

Yet while Arizonans want a better public K-12 education system, only 26% rate Arizona’s as high quality. Other statistics give them reason for this belief. On nearly every educational metric tracked by the Arizona Education Progress Meter, we are falling short.

A child’s third grade reading level strongly predicts their future educational success, yet only 35% of Arizona students score as proficient or highly proficient on the state’s third grade language arts assessment.

Arizona’s goal for post-high school attainment is 60%. We sit at 46%.

And Arizona has some of the lowest teacher pay and per-student spending in the nation, even after improvements in the past four years. A 2019 ASU Morrison Institute survey found that 68% of Arizonans believe it is important to increase the pay of our teachers.

The only way we'll solve school funding issues

So what should happen next? Our leaders need to go back to the drawing board to find ways to fulfill the wishes of Arizonans for a stronger, better-funded education system.

Experience tells us that education groups alone cannot deliver this. Nor can business groups alone. Nor can legislators who speak only to their favored interests.

Another instructive data point holds a warning in this regard: In the Gallup survey, 44% said they were willing to pay more in taxes to support priority issues and 31% said they were not. That leaves 1 in 4 voters who could go either way. They’ll swing to a yes vote only with a strong argument supported by a broad coalition.

The answer to improving Arizona’s education system will come when everyone – educators, business leaders, legislators, parent groups – collaborates to listen to what Arizonans are telling them and uses that data to fashion solutions that enjoy broad support.

Because when Arizonans come together to solve problems, we end up with the solutions that build a better future.

Sybil Francis is president & CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona. Reach her at [email protected].