Reform advocates make case for modernized K-12 funding

Advocates for reforms to Arizona’s system of funding K-12 schools presented their views to state lawmakers at a luncheon on Monday.

“I don’t think there is a more prime opportunity for the Legislature to take this on, considering the state’s historic investments in education and the federal dollars schools have on hand,” said Matthew Simon, vice president for government affairs and advocacy for Great Leaders Strong Schools. “This is an opportunity to reform our system to ensure we have a K-12 student funding system that funds students the same regardless of the types of public school they attend.”

The group and its allies believe the funding system should be reshaped to fund students more equally, regardless of whether the student attends a public district school or a public charter school, or whether the school is an urban, suburban, or rural area. In addition, the system should reflect the state’s robust school choice options.

A recent poll conducted by nationally recognized firm Public Opinion Strategies found that nearly 80% of Arizona voters believe every K-12 student should be funded the same way regardless of what school they attend or where they live. Seventy percent of respondents said they would support a new funding formula.

The poll of 500 voters was conducted last month and has a margin of error of 4.38%.

“It is very promising that voters see something wrong with the current system and are becoming more interested in a true student-centered funding system,” Simon said. 

The current K-12 funding formula fluctuates depending on the type of school, the makeup of the local property tax base, the student mix, and whether voters in the jurisdiction have supported bonds and budget overrides. District schools are funded with a mix of state and local tax dollars, while charter schools cannot access local dollars.

The complexity of the funding formula, say reform advocates, does not treat students the same based on where they are attending school, but rather is still largely calibrated around systems. 

School districts must campaign during bond and override elections to raise property taxes so that schools may receive increased funding, but a statewide per-student funding formula would eliminate the need for local bond and override elections. 

“Districts with lower property value and less cooperative voters have much more trouble securing bonds and increased funding for their schools,” Simon said. “A state student funding formula wouldn’t just make economic sense for these districts, but we hope that all districts would do the economic math and realize that it is the better option. We want to provide a glide path for these districts to make this choice.” 

Simon also discussed the formula used to calculate funding for school transportation. The current formula does not account for the major changes in enrollment that some school districts have experienced over the past 20 years. 

“You have districts like Tucson Unified School District, which are down nearly 30% in enrollment in the last 20 years, and yet they still receive funding for student transportation as if their enrollment was at an all-time high,” Simon said. “And this money that they receive does not have to be spent on transportation. The transportation formula is flawed.” 

Reform advocates in 2021 backed legislation passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey to establish a $20 million competitive grant program to enable district and charter schools, local governments and non-profit groups to modernize student transportation and make it easier for families to access schools other than their assigned location or schools not near a city bus line. Under the program, districts and charters can also provide direct grants to families for transportation needs, whether direct commutes, carpools, K-12 ridesharing, or public transit.

Advocates this year are supporting legislation that would increase flexibility in the types of vehicles education providers can integrate into their fleets.

Stephen Matter

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