The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute recently shared that a report from Matt Beienburg, Goldwater’s director of Education Policy, reveals how spending surged in Arizona’s public school system – but funds may not have been applied as originally intended.
“The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of unprecedented spending on public K-12 schools, yet available evidence suggests that the bonanza of federal spending was almost entirely avoidable and that much of it will likely serve a very different purpose than the one originally sold to policymakers and the public,” according to Goldwater Institute.
In his report, Beienburg uses Arizona schools as a case study on the “failure of government policies to align taxpayer resources with the actual needs of public school students.”
According to the report, public schools experienced a mass enrollment exodus following policies enacted in response to the pandemic between 2019 and 2021. This is no exception in Arizona, as public school districts lost roughly 50,000 students during the pandemic. However, while public school enrollment dropped, Arizona charter schools, which often had less strict COVID measures, actually gained students.
While public school enrollment dropped, federal funding for these schools increased. With the passage of three separate federal acts, each giving more money than the last, the federal government infused nearly $200 billion into K-12 education nationwide between 2020 and 2021. Arizona public schools received $4.3 billion, roughly $4,100 per student.
Beienbrug reported that this was far too much money to hand out. By the end of 2021, Arizona public schools only spent one billion of the federal funds they received, less than 25 percent.
So, the question becomes: where did the extra money go? Beienburg shared that while a large sum went towards operational costs and salaries, money was also spent on technology and facility upgrades. Yet, after June 2021, the districts’ spending on technology more than doubled. Beienburg suggests that rather than holistically going towards COVID-19 relief, much of the federal funding went to investments in technology after the fact. Furthermore, some districts, like the Mesa Unified School District, used some of its federal funds on facility upgrades, such as improved HVAC systems, that would take place after June 2021, which Beienburg argues is not the original intention of the funding.
Furthermore, he stated that taxpayers and students are getting the short end of the stick in school district spending. In 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed the “20×2020” teacher raise plan, which aimed to increase average teacher pay by 20 percent statewide by the 2020-2021 school year. Lawmakers entrusted roughly $650 million of additional annual funding for this goal.
On top of this money, school districts also received cumulative inflationary funding and additional funding from sales tax revenue. Beienburg stated that teachers should have received the planned pay increase and surpassed it with the other funds to receive a roughly 27 percent increase. Nevertheless, 2020 came and went, and teachers only received a 16.5 percent pay increase between 2018 and 2021.
Ultimately, Beienburg warns that policymakers must ensure that funding initiatives actually do what they are advertised to do.
On a positive note, Beienburg does praise Arizona’s recent efforts and advancements in school choice. Programs like the Empowerment Scholarship Account offer a bypass through the bureaucracy of the public education system and put funds in the hands of parents and, by extension, the educator to whom the family entrusts their child.
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