Arizona is near the bottom of all states when it comes to spending money on public education, according to a new report.

The study by the U.S. Census Bureau shows per pupil spending in Arizona at $7,848. That compares with $10,615 nationwide and puts the state ahead of only Idaho and Utah.

But the report also shows that this isn’t simply a function of Arizona being a less expensive place to live, a figure that is repeatedly reflected in the fact that per capita personal income in the state lags the national average.

The Census Bureau also looked at classroom spending in each state based on personal income for that state.

That, however, moved Arizona up in the rankings only a bit. Its figure of $40.55 for each $1,000 of personal income left it ahead of only Tennessee, Florida and the District of Columbia.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the state had to cut education funding in prior years to balance the budget.

He said some of that was restored, with an additional $177 million put into public schools this year. That includes $40 million given to schools to help ensure that children know how to read by the end of third grade.

“But it’s also a mistake to judge education by per student funding,” said Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

“If per pupil funding were the most important factor, parents would be rushing to send their children to school in Newark, N.J. and Washington, D.C.,” he said. “They have the highest per pupil funding in the nation. But they also have the worst performance.”

State School Superintendent John Huppenthal agreed.

“Contrary to popular perception, our education system is slightly above the national average,” he said. “When you have our cost equation, it means we run a much, much more cost-effective school system than any other state in the nation.”

Huppenthal acknoweldged that figures from last year’s National Assessment of Education Progress actually show the state lagged the national average in each of the four categories where students in fourth and eighth grade were tested. That includes math, reading, science and writing.

A further analysis shows other patterns.

For example, 28 percent of Arizona eighth graders were listed as proficient or advanced in reading. That compares with 32 percent nationwide.

But Huppenthal said the Rand Corp., a conservative think tank, does its own analysis of those NAEP scores, one he said shows Arizona above the national average.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, Kavanagh’s Senate counterpart, was more willing to link funding to academic achievement.

“Of course it’s a factor,” he said, though he said it’s not the “total picture.”

Shooter said, though, lawmakers had little choice when the economy went in the tank — and tax collections shrank -- to make some of the spending cuts in education. He said part of that is because other big-ticket items, like the state’s Medicaid program, are protected at least in part by voter-approved requirements, making them off-limits to legislative cuts.

But Ann-Eve Pedersen disputed the contention there is no correlation between money for schools and achievement. More to the point, she said there is a minimum funding requirement -- and Arizona is below it.

“We have reduced education funding levels to the point where they’re really not sustainable for our students and our teachers,” said Pedersen. She is spearheading an effort to permanently extend the temporary one-cent sales tax surcharge, with most of the cash earmarked for public education.

Pedersen pointed out that Gov. Jan Brewer sought an additional $200 million for the coming school year for “soft capital” expenses, things like books, computers and classroom supplies. The Republican-controlled Legislature refused to go along, instead adding $15 million in general capital funds to be divided up among all the school districts in the state.

The result, Pedersen said, is “parents and education supporters have to stand outside of Safeway and collect receipts just so schools will have enough money for basics like pens, paper and pencils for students in classrooms.”

The grocery chain offers a cash rebate for receipts collected during a period at the beginning of the school year.

But Shooter thinks the initiative — which may or may not qualify for the ballot because of a legal fight over paperwork — is a bad way to put more money into education.

“I think it’s a disaster,” he said, saying there is no real oversight of how the cash would be used.

Some of the cash raised — estimated to be at least $1 billion a year — does have specific performance measure that schools would have to meet to get extra cash. But the bulk of the funding has no such restrictions.

Kavanagh said the lack of legislative review of the funding also means a lack of flexibility to move dollars to the programs with the most need.

He cited that $40 million lawmakers approved this year for early childhood reading programs, saying that backs up a state law which will require youngsters to read at third-grade level before they can be promoted to fourth grade.

Pedersen said those NAEP scores have definite economic fallout. She said some firms won’t relocate here because of lackluster funding of public education.

And there are implications for companies already here who try to recruit engineers and other skilled professionals from elsewhere.

“Those families, if they have children, look at what our rankings are,” Pedersen said. “We’re at a disadvantage because those parents don’t want to come to Arizona and bring their children here because they’re worried that the quality of education that their children will receive is not up to par.”

Pedersen’s group is scheduled to file its initiative petitions Monday. But the question of whether the issue makes the November ballot hangs on whether a court concludes backers have met all the legal requirements.

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