The Arizona Auditor General’s report says classroom spending remained below the national average in fiscal year 2018, but classroom support – a broader measure the governor, legislators and education advocates agreed upon better reflects the services that help students achieve – is much closer to the national average.
In the auditor’s report, instruction is the only indicator of classroom spending, while student support and instructional support are added to instruction to calculate the broader measure of classroom support state leaders agreed upon in the 2015 budget.
“Arizona’s spending on student support and instructional support – both of those – were well above the national average,” said Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for Arizona Association of School Business Officials. “That includes counseling services and other services that are really important to students and are part of what most people think are part of a classroom even if they don’t provide the service in the classroom.”
Those are important services, and “many of the student support services are mandated by law for disabled students,” Essigs said.
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Instruction spending includes salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides, costs related to instructional supplies – such as pencils, paper and workbooks – instructional software, athletics, co-curricular activities – such as band and choir – and tuition paid to private institutions for students with special needs.
“Statewide this year 54 percent was spent on instruction, which was an increase from last year,” said Vicki Hanson, director of the division of school audits for the Office of the Arizona Auditor General and a former teacher in a special education resource classroom in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.
Student support is comprised of school district spending on counselors, social workers, school nurses, speech pathologists, audiologists and attendance services, while instructional support includes librarians, teacher training, curriculum development and instructional related technology services.
“We now have legislators who have a better understanding now of how important student support and instructional support services are, because if you’re training teachers – especially in Arizona where we have a lot of turnover – that’s part of classroom spending,” Essigs said.
The report’s charts are just one tool school districts can use to see if their spending reflects their goals and priorities, Hanson said.
“For example, if over time you’ve made an effort to move more money into student support or you’ve taken on an initiative to increase school safety, do you see that in your chart?” Hanson asked.
Revenue and other factors impacting spending
Arizona’s classroom spending continues to be impacted by its low per-pupil funding – ranked 48th in the nation, high poverty rate, increased plant operations and energy costs due to the state’s extreme temperatures and rising transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas.
“We spend above the national average on transportation. We spend slightly above the national average on food services. The more you spend in those areas, it lowers your percentage in the classroom,” Essigs said.
Arizona school districts receive fewer dollars per pupil from state and local revenue sources than the national average, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s Arizona School District Spending: Fiscal Year 2018 report in March 2019.
“Federal revenues comprised a greater percentage of Arizona school district revenues, in part because Arizona school districts received more federal dollars per pupil than the national average, but primarily because Arizona school districts received fewer revenues per pupil overall,” according to the report.
Arizona school districts spent more than the national average on student support, instruction support, transportation, plant operations and food service and less on administration and instruction, Hanson said.
“Everybody talks about administration, but as you can see that was not the second largest area (of spending),” Hanson said. “The second largest area is plant operations, followed by administration, student support, instruction support, food service and then transportation.”
At the Arizona Association of School Business Officials meeting on March 13 Glendale Elementary School District Assistant Superintendent for Business and Auxiliary Services Mike Barragan said, “The lack of capital funding has also decreased the classroom dollars, because we’re spending more on plant operations. If we had capital funding, we’d be providing more textbook adoptions and instructional aides.”
That would be valuable information to include in the report to give people a better understanding of what is going on, said Barragan, one of the plaintiffs in the capital funding lawsuit against the State of Arizona and the School Facilities Board.
Another factor that should be mentioned in the report is Prop. 206, which raised the minimum wage, Barragan said.
“Prop. 206 is in perpetuity that that’s going to increase plant operations, food service and transportation costs and make districts appear less efficient,” Barragan said.
How teacher pay impacts instruction spending
Lower instruction spending may be due to Arizona’s lower average teacher salary of $48,372 compared to the national average of $59,600, more teachers in their first three years in the classroom and higher class sizes, Hanson said.
A large number of teacher retirements or hiring teachers new to the profession can also play a role in a school district’s percentage of instruction spending, Hanson said.
Another thing to consider is that instruction spending and “the teacher salary amount includes the 1.06 percent pay increase, but not the teacher pay increase of 20 percent by 2020 monies yet,” Hanson said.
Factors that increase student support
Student support spending increases when school districts serve students with higher poverty rates and more students with special needs, Hanson said.
When asked why the poverty rate was used instead of the school district’s free- and reduced-meal rate, Hanson said that the U.S. Census Bureau updates the poverty rates each year while some school districts do not calculate their free- and reduced-meal rates each year.
“We do know that poverty impacts student achievement and can impact other ways that school districts spend money so we want to include it,” Hanson said.
Saddle Mountain Unified School District Superintendent Paul Tighe said he appreciates the changes the auditor general and department staff made in the report based on feedback from school districts and that “helps reflect some of the spending trends including the percent of spending on special ed.”