Arizona’s school funding system is outdated and broken
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Arizona’s school funding system is outdated and broken

Arizona's proposed school finance reform would address some of the stark school funding disparities across the state's school districts.

Arizona’s 42-year-old school funding system is broken. The system is far too reliant on local property taxes and other outdated funding mechanisms that fail to fund all public school students fairly. 

That’s why State Rep. Michelle Udall (R-LD25) has introduced a strike-everything amendment to Senate Bill 1269, sponsored by State Sen. Vince Leach (R-LD11), that would make important reforms to Arizona’s current K-12 finance system. The proposal would increase the amount of education funding most Arizona students receive each year and improve the overall fairness of the state’s education finance system. 

While critics of the proposal are concerned that the legislation is moving too quickly and too late in the legislative session, this reform is desperately needed for Arizona students and schools.

Arizona’s SB 1269 would eliminate several often-criticized components of the state’s school funding system. These components include additional funding for school districts with more experienced teachers and a transportation funding mechanism that allows districts to raise funds based on outdated student enrollment figures. 

Importantly, the proposal would also address some of the stark school funding disparities across Arizona school districts. By allowing school districts that can’t raise additional local funds via bonds and tax overrides to access additional funding streams through a State Student Funding Formula, the proposal would be a boon for property-poor school districts that have struggled for years to keep up with their neighbors who pass bonds and overrides to raise extra funding. With voter approval, these school districts could opt-in to a new state funding formula, which provides stable, reliable, and equalized funding for students.

This provision would make a meaningful step toward severing the tie between local property wealth and school funding in Arizona. Eventually, other districts that are tired of going back to local voters to raise more money every few years could also sign-on.

Another consequential change in the legislation is the repeal of the Transportation Revenue Control Limit (TRCL), which is a provision in Arizona’s funding system that allows districts to raise additional dollars locally without voter approval to fund transportation based on old student counts. This is an unfair provision that arbitrarily favors some school districts based on historic enrollment patterns and legislators have been aware of this issue for decades.  

In addition to moving away from TRCL, the legislation would provide districts another opt-in opportunity to receive a flat per-student amount for transportation rather than continuing to receive mileage-based reimbursements for transportation. This is another needed change that would make Arizona’s transportation funding more adaptable to the state’s robust school choice environment where students frequently attend school outside of their residential boundaries. It would also provide transportation funds for charter schools, which currently serve over 20 percent of the state’s students. 

Other funding formula provisions that SB 1269 would eliminate, such as the teacher experience index and additional teacher compensation, should also be welcomed by advocates of funding equity. The teacher experience index unfairly directs additional dollars to districts with more experienced teachers, regardless of student needs. This practice is especially problematic given research indicating that additional teacher experience is often negatively correlated with student need levels. Also, additional teacher compensation isn’t available to charter schools, which receive an average of $1,308 less per student when compared to district schools.

While this reform would be consequential, Arizona Senate Bill 1269 would only be a first step that addresses some of the most glaring problems in the state’s education funding system. 

At some point, the burden of proof should shift to those upholding the education system’s status quo. Critics of the SB 1269 need to defend why nothing should change after years of lawsuits and multiple analyses exposing the deep unfairness of Arizona’s school finance system. 

Arizona’s students, particularly those in the state’s lowest-funded school districts, can’t afford to wait any longer. 

A version of this column previously appeared in the Western Tribune.