Arizona’s results-based funding program gave low-income-area district and charter schools $14 million. Middle- and higher-income ones got $24 million.

Arizonans from across the state harshly criticized political and education leaders Wednesday, saying the K-12 education system is failing Arizona’s children.

The participants of the Arizona Town Hall forum on education funding said the state needs to nearly double what it is spending on education, including giving teachers $15,000 raises.

They said current funding formulas “empower” charter schools to pick and choose their students — creating an atmosphere of “educational segregation” — and blamed Gov. Doug Ducey’s results-based funding program for further widening the achievement gap. 

The group offered a half-dozen proposals for how officials could find the money to accomplish this, including raising the Proposition 301 sales tax, instituting a statewide property tax and eliminating corporate income-tax carve-outs.

READ MORE: Arizona school funding: How it works

Participants spent three days this week huddled at a Mesa hotel hashing out solutions to Arizona’s education-funding crisis. 

They weren’t the public officials usually charged with such a monumental task, but those most affected.

They included a Chandler stay-at-home mother of two, an Apache Junction high-school student, an investment banker, a retired teacher and 80 others participating in the latest Arizona Town Hall forum.

“Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between people and the policy makers,” said town-hall participant Jonae Harrison, a policy analyst with Chicanos Por La Causa. “I see the town hall as a bridge, a collective work from a diverse group.” 

After three days, the group emerged with their proposal.

“We need to change course and begin reinvesting substantially in Arizona’s preK-12 education system,” the group stated in their proposal.

A failing education system

The Arizona Town Hall participants gave Arizona’s current education system a failing grade, and laid much of the blame at the feet of elected officials.

“Our barrier is the lack of a concrete statewide program or plan to implement funding increases. Another barrier is Arizona’s Legislature,” the report stated.

The goal of public education in Arizona, participants agreed, should be to produce students with critical-thinking skills and collaborative abilities who are civically engaged and can succeed at life — economically, socially and emotionally.

To do that, they said, the state’s education system must meet the needs of a diverse student population and employ qualified, fairly compensated teachers. 

“Arizona is not meeting these goals,” participants stated in their report. “Arizona’s preK-12 education system is inadequately funded, and the funding problem is getting worse.” 

The group recognized the value of school choice, but criticized the current implementation, saying the funding mechanisms incentivize schools to view students as commodities and develop unhealthy competition among schools.

The system “empowers schools to choose their students more than it empowers students (or their parents) to choose their schools,” the report states. As a result, is has created educational segregation based on race, socioeconomic status, and ability, the report states.

“School choice tends to concentrate the highest-need and highest-cost students in schools with the lowest levels of state funding, while the highest-performing students are concentrated in other schools that tend to have higher levels of state funding,” the report states.


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Finding more money

The participants agreed that Arizona must find new “dedicated, sustainable funding sources” for education. 

They offered several options:

  • Raising the sales tax under Prop. 301 from 0.6 percent to at least 1 percent or more. 
  • A statewide property tax.
  • Eliminating carve-outs in the corporate income-tax system.
  • Adding a sales tax on personal and professional services, such as for haircuts and legal services. 
  • Excise tax on energy, tourism and entertainment activities. 
  • Taxing all nicotine-delivery devices. 
  • Exploring public/private partnerships for infrastructure and construction needs. 

“Striking the right balance is a very complex proposition, requiring consideration of multiple factors such as public support, legislative viability, fiscal impact and whether a given funding source is sustainable, dedicated to education, regressive, or cyclical,” the report stated. 

Taylor Pineda, who is pursuing her master’s degree in education policy at Arizona State University, said the town-hall experience exceeded her expectations, particularly as it included so many people from diverse backgrounds.

“There are actual real policy actions in here,” she said. “We read so much about the gaps, but here are the solutions.” 

Dispersing the money

The group proposed $1.3 billion in one-time new spending and at least $2 billion annually in ongoing new spending on top of the state’s current $4.2 billion education budget.

Here are some of the specifics proposed: 

  • $900 million in ongoing spending to bring teacher salaries to the national median, which would equate to about a $15,000 raise per teacher.
  • $380 million a year to restore the capital-funding formula.
  • $343 million in one-time money and $250 million annually for new-school construction.
  • $250 million a year to update and fully fund the building-renewal fund.
  • $240 million annually to implement full-day kindergarten.
  • $200 million to develop and implement a state-funded preschool program. 
  • $18 million a year to restore some extra funding for charter schools.

Harrison said the additional funding for teachers was a priority for her, as well as providing additional funding to address the needs of students from lower socioeconomic areas that may be struggling with issues such as hunger or homelessness. 

The group declared teacher pay an “emergency” and a “crisis.” It suggested raising teacher base pay and providing more funding for other incentives, such as tuition reimbursement. 

It also suggested a significant new allocation for school construction and maintenance. 

Karen McClelland, who serves on the Sedona school board, said the town hall’s report puts all of the problems and solutions into one document.

“It’s all there,” she said. “Now just do it.” 


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What’s next

This proposal joins a handful of other proposals to ask voters to raise the Prop. 301 sales tax, including one from a group of business people that has challenged state business organizations to support and fund a ballot measure to raise the sales tax to 1.5 percent and another that proposes a fee on energy

Neither the business organizations nor any of the major education groups have yet backed any of the current proposals. 

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Phoenix, was the only state lawmaker to participate in the town hall. She left determined to make some of the recommendations happen. 

Epstein said she will meet with House Republican leadership next week to ask them to form a bipartisan ad hoc education committee that could analyze all of the funding proposals and attempt to develop some consensus among lawmakers, business leaders, education advocates and the public.

“Real bipartisanship is the way we develop strong solutions,” she said. “We need to bring in these great ideas people have been developing in silos. The strongest solution will be to combine some of these.” 

Epstein said she is concerned that raising the sales tax disproportionately would affect poor, millennial and senior residents, but said it’s an issue she would like the committee to research further.

Some Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have indicated support for raising the sales tax, but none have yet successfully introduced a proposal.

The tax measure expires in mid-2021. 

Ducey has been vague on his position. He has said he supports extending the sales tax, but has not publicly said whether he would support increasing it.

Ducey this week also appeared to criticize schools — districts in particular — for how they are spending the money they already have. He said he is working on accountability measures to better track how schools are spending funds from Proposition 123, which voters passed as part of an effort by the state to settle a lawsuit over its underfunding inflation costs. 

Schools were not required to spend Prop. 123 on any particular thing; it was added to their base funding. 

“I would like to see them all go to teacher pay, but principals and superintendents tell me that there’s other needs that they have, some of them are more urgent, but I want to keep the focus on teacher pay,” he said during a radio interview with KTAR News 92.3.

Prescott Superintendent Joe Howard was frustrated with Ducey’s remarks, which he said he took as condemning schools that didn’t use all of the funds on teacher raises.

“It’s just a little bit more complicated than that,” he said.

Howard said in his district, the funds were needed just to meet basic needs the state still isn’t adequately funding.

“In Prescott, we were not able to give raises with the Prop. 301 funds,” he said. “We used the money to save teachers we would have had to lay off.”


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