Evidence that Arizona needs to change how public schools are funded surfaced this week in a report published by EdBuild, a national organization that is funded by reputable foundations that include Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family and seven other well-established authorities.
Our state ranks at the top in national rankings of the funding disparity between white and non-white schools. Districts that are predominately white in the EdBuild study receive on average $7,613 more per student than schools attended by a majority of non-white students.
While the focus of the national EdBuild study is on racial disparity, we would contend a similar difference can be attributed to students attending rural schools compared to those enrolled in densely populated urban centers.
The reason is the property tax.
We’re not questioning that schools with a majority of non-white students are probably located in less-affluent areas, which is a significant factor in determining how much money a district can collect in property tax. Lower property valuations means less revenue collected from the property tax.
The same challenge faces schools in rural areas. Unlike property values in Scottsdale, Oro Valley and other wealthy communities, increasing the tax levy in rural areas will generate far less revenue for the local school district than the same increase in a wealthy district.
The size of the funding disparity in Arizona puts the state in serious jeopardy of attracting a lawsuit similar to the 1994 legal challenge that prompted the state to create the School Facilities Board. In short order after the state Supreme Court issued its ruling that Arizona was violating provisions of its Constitution governing equality in education, more than $1 billion was allocated to improve public school buildings across the state.
The existing funding formula that school districts rely on is the source for this disparity and must be changed to prevent a court-ordered solution that may not provide the best outcome for public schools or taxpayers.
Unfortunately, lawmakers have only given lip service to addressing this daunting challenge and no real progress has been made to solve the disparity.
State involvement is perhaps the only way to balance an equation that currently favors property-rich districts while property-poor districts struggle to make ends meet. Lawmakers must recognize that a new formula is needed that levels the funding for all public schools, regardless of the capacity of the district to generate revenue from the property tax.
Balancing the distribution of state shared revenue or instituting a formula that allows rural school districts to generate more money from the property tax appear to be logical steps that would reduce the current disparity.
It’s up to the Legislature to get this discussion started.
This originally appeared in the Sierra Vista Herald.