Arizona's classroom spending at its lowest since 2001
Arizona school districts spent 53.6 percent of operating dollars on instruction, lowest since state began monitoring in 2001
- More than 40 percent of Arizona districts spent less than 50 percent of their budget on teachers, supplies
- Some experts say classroom spending doesn't reflect how well district serves students
- Gov. Doug Ducey maintains many districts are spending too much on administration
Arizona schools continue to have a hard time siphoning dollars where many believe they make the most difference — the classroom.
Districts last school year spent the lowest percentage of their operating dollars on classroom instruction since at least 2001, when the state began monitoring the figure, according to a state report released Tuesday.
Classroom spending is a popularly cited funding figure that includes a school's expenditures for salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides as well as classroom supplies.
The report said the low spending percentages have contributed to a lower state teacher salary average and larger classroom sizes.
Some of the key findings of the annual report released by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General:
- The state's school districts spent 53.6 percent of its maintenance and operations dollars on classroom instruction. The national average is 60.8 percent.
- More than 40 percent of Arizona school districts spent less than 50 percent of their operating dollars in the classroom.
- Had Arizona kept classroom spending at the same rate it did in 2001, when the reports were first commissioned, it would have spent $402 million more on classroom instruction in fiscal 2015.
"That percentage has decreased in both in years where overall spending decreased and overall spending increased," said Vicki Hanson, division of school audits manager for the Office of the Auditor General.
"And that matters because it means $400 million not going into classrooms."
The spending figure has been under the public microscope recently.
School districts this year were required to release expected classroom spending percentages for the school year starting last fall. It was a move pushed by Gov. Doug Ducey and other critics who believe schools spend too much money on administration.
"The governor has talked since day one about the need to look at where we’re spending dollars that are already in the system," Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. "But he’s also talked about the need for more dollars in the system as a whole and that’s what we need to look at first."
Tuesday's report said Arizona school districts "spent less than national averages in nearly all operational areas." Arizona districts spent less on administration — $780 per student compared with $1,173 nationally. The state also spent less on classroom spending — $4,105 per student compared with $6,543 nationally.
Arizona's steady spending decline deviated from the national trend.
The national classroom spending average has fallen only 0.7 percent since 2001. Arizona classroom spending has dropped by more than 5 percentage points from a peak of 58.6 percent in 2004 to 53.6 percent last school year.
"Arizona schools are doing good work with very little support from the state," said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association.
An imperfect barometer
Many educators and school-finance experts say classroom spending does not paint a holistic picture for how well a district might be serving its students or prioritizing support for teachers.
They agree the figures are important — and that getting more money into classrooms does, in fact, translate to better student achievement. But they also warn the numbers can be misleading at face value.
For one, classroom spending percentages and per-pupil funding figures are not proportionate. A large school district might spend more actual dollars per student on instruction than a small school district that, on paper, spends a higher percentage in the classroom.
Jeremy Calles, president of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said several variables affect the bottom line for how much a school spends on classrooms.
State funding cuts directly impact that spending figure, said Calles, also chief financial officer for the Kyrene School District.
"A lot of people think the recession is over," Calles said, "but it really isn't for school districts."
Classroom spending's narrow definition does not account for some services that might benefit students and teachers, said Ken Hicks, chief financial officer for the Peoria Unified School District.
The Peoria district was one of the many districts that posted a lower classroom spending percentage during the 2014-15 school year than it had the year before.
Hicks and the district expected it. The district last year had to reclassify health-care benefits for retired teachers, which had accounted for part of Peoria's classroom spending, under "administrative expenses."
"It can be very misleading taken at face value," Hicks said said of classroom spending. "... But I don't know that there's a better barometer. I don't think there will be one."
Classroom spending percentages in Maricopa County
A look at how what percent of their maintenance and operations dollars each of the county's districts devoted to classroom spending during the 2014-15 school year.
- Agua Fria Union High School District: 53 percent
- Aguila Elementary School District: 55.6 percent
- Alhambra Elementary School District: 53.7 percent
- Arlington Elementary School District: 53.4 percent
- Avondale Elementary School District: 51.6 percent
- Balsz Elementary School District: 49.4 percent
- Buckeye Elementary School District: 53.7 percent
- Buckeye Union High School District: 53 percent
- Cartwright Elementary School District: 56.2 percent
- Cave Creek Unified School District: 53.3 percent
- Chandler Unified School District: 61.1 percent
- Creighton Elementary School District: 48.5 percent
- Deer Valley Unified School District: 60.7 percent
- Dysart Unified School District: 57.4 percent
- Fountain Hills Unified School District: 54.3 percent
- Fowler Elementary School District: 53.6 percent
- Gila Bend Unified School District: 44.8 percent
- Gilbert Unified School District: 61.3 percent
- Glendale Elementary School District: 53.9 percent
- Glendale Union High School District : 55.8 percent
- Higley Unified School District: 56 percent
- Isaac Elementary School District: 52 percent
- Kyrene Elementary School District: 57.5 percent
- Laveen Elementary School District: 51.6 percent
- Liberty Elementary School District: 58.8 percent
- Litchfield Elementary School District: 57.9 percent
- Littleton Elementary School District: 51.8 percent
- Madison Elementary School District: 53.1 percent
- Mesa Unified School District: 55.8 percent
- Mobile Elementary School District: 37.4 percent
- Morristown Elementary School District: 50.6 percent
- Murphy Elementary School District: 49.7 percent
- Nadaburg Unified School District: 48.6 percent
- Osborn Elementary School District: 48.5 percent
- Palo Verde Elementary School District: 55 percent
- Paloma Elementary School District: 48.2 percent
- Paradise Valley Unified School District: 57.2 percent
- Pendergast Elementary School District: 53.5 percent
- Peoria Unified School District: 54.9 percent
- Phoenix Elementary School District: 49.2 percent
- Phoenix Union High School District: 55.4 percent
- Queen Creek Unified School District: 50.5 percent
- Riverside Elementary School District: 45.3 percent
- Roosevelt Elementary School District: 44.4 percent
- Saddle Mountain Unified School District : 49.4 percent
- Scottsdale Unified School District: 53.9 percent
- Sentinel Elementary School District: 53.2 percent
- Tempe Elementary School District: 52.8 percent
- Tempe Union High School District: 53.3 percent
- Tolleson Elementary School District: 51.8 percent
- Tolleson Union High School District: 53.8 percent
- Union Elementary School District: 52.3 percent
- Washington Elementary School District: 54.5 percent
- Wickenburg Unified School District: 50.9 percent
- Wilson Elementary School District: 55.6 percent