You’ve heard that Arizona ranks 49 in per pupil K-12 spending. On its face, it sounds disgraceful. But that doesn’t mean it’s causal to education outcomes. It also doesn’t mean that Arizona is stingy. There is much more to the story. The Arizona Tax Research Association (ATRA) has put together a 9-page document titled Arizona K-12 School Finance Statistics: Providing Context to a Complex Measurement, that provides factual information relating to the reasons and fallacies surrounding the commonly argued narrative that Arizona doesn’t fund K-12 education adequately.
Arizona has increased K-12 spending by 172.5% since 1992, ranking among the top 10 states that increased dollars to its entire K-12 education system. Arizona has ranked #3 in the country in population growth since 1992. Maricopa County’s population grew more in total persons than any other county in America during the 2000s!
So, why doesn’t all this growth translate into more available money? Why is Arizona #49 in per pupil spending? One factor is that Arizona ranks #11 in percentage of population under the age of 18. That’s 24.4% of our population. These children aren’t paying state income taxes, but they are consuming education dollars. Arizona ranks #12 in percentage of residents 65 and older. This demographic represents 15.4% of Arizona residents. Many retirees no longer pay state income taxes, but they do tend to require more state resources. Arizona’s tax base falls on the shoulders of the 18-64 age group. Arizona is #49 in percentage of residents in this taxpayer category. Thus, 60.2% of the population is supporting one of the largest student populations in the country.
Most compelling is that Arizona is #2 in student growth, at 63.04%. Contrast this with New York. It’s growth was -2.75%. Yet, New York has more adults (64%) in the 18-64 range paying state taxes. They have fewer students (21.6%) to educate, and they have fewer retirees (14.4%) 65 and over.
Arizona isn’t necessarily a "wealthy" state, either. It ranks #45 in income per student. In contrast, the states that have the highest ranking in per pupil spending have low percentages of youths and high percentages of working age adults.
As if our demographics wasn’t enough, how many people know that only 17% of Arizona is privately owned? How much do you pay in property taxes? Through PILT (payment in lieu of taxes), the federal government pays Arizona about $1.10 per acre for our public lands. That "largesse" helps "support" schools in our rural communities.
The sobering truth is that, even if Arizona raised personal income taxes by 50%, added a cent to the statewide sales tax, and directed all revenues to K-12, it still wouldn’t crack the top 30 of per pupil spenders.
The good news is that Arizona ranks #28 in indexed average teacher pay (125.67%). Not high, but certainly not last. Teachers are a huge factor in education outcomes.
Many people don’t know that Arizona’s largest item in its state budget is for K-12 education: $4.3 billion (43% of the General Fund). Arizona ranks #17 in state and local tax revenue for public education at $42 per $1,000 of personal income, meaning its "weight of effort" is above the national average.