The share of education tax dollars that actually wind up in Arizona classrooms slid again last year to the lowest level in the 13 years the state has monitored it.
New figures from the Auditor General's Office show that less than 54 cents out of every education dollar was put into actual classroom spending. That's 7.4 percentage points below the national average.
Auditor General Debra Davenport said that shows up largely in more students being packed into fewer classes. Not only is the average class size in Arizona larger than the national average, Davenport said it's actually increased in the last two years.
That also was reflected in the fact that while the number of children attending Arizona public schools has dropped by 3 percent since 2009, the number of teachers dropped by 8.6 percent.
But Davenport said the ever-declining percentage of education dollars winding up in the classroom tells just half the story.
She said total education spending in 2013 was $7,485. That's $412 less per pupil than it was in 2009.
So when you start with a smaller number and then spend less of it in the classroom, that results in a double whammy she said.
Put more simply, the current 53.8 percent figure on instructional costs translates into just $4,031 per student to cover things like salaries and benefits for teachers, aides and coaches. It also covers supplies such as pencils and paper, athletics, and activities like band or choir.
But if you add that multiplier effect – fewer dollars overall and a smaller percent going to classrooms – the actual cash making it into the classroom for instruction is nearly $450 less than just four years earlier.
Davenport said it's not that things like superintendents, principals, business managers and clerical staff are sucking up all the money. In fact, she said, Arizona schools overall spent less than the national average on administration.
What's making up the difference, she said, are other non-instructional costs. For example, she said, Arizona schools spent more than the national average on plant operations. Davenport said almost all of this is related to heating and cooling costs.
She said even the state's higher-than-average poverty rate has an effect, with 22 percent of Arizona's school-age children living at or below the poverty level, two points higher than the rest of the country.
“Students living in poverty are more likely to use support services such as counselors, social workers and attendance services,: she wrote.
Davenport's auditors also found that transportation costs also are increasing as a share of total school funding, reaching 4.9 percent of available operating dollars last year compared to 4.4 percent spent in the 2007-2008 school year.
“Clearly, we do need to get more money into the schools,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that is happening, slowly, as the state recovers from the recession.
The trickier part, though, may be getting more of whatever dollars are available actually into the classroom.
Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, Kavanagh's Senate counterpart, said technology may help.
First, he said, the state could ensure that all classrooms are wired for high-speed Internet. That frees up local dollars to be used for education.
But Shooter said Internet access also could help schools do more with less money. He figures that wired classrooms could allow a single teacher, perhaps even a university professor with a special expertise in a subject, to provide instruction to multiple classes.
On the other side of the equation, Kavanagh said one option might be a legislative mandate that at least 57 cents of every dollar spent on education be earmarked for instruction. He said the report shows that is possible.
“We have some districts that are able to get up to the 57 to 60 percent range without much difficulty,” he said. “We've got to do better than (the average) of 53.8 percent.”
Kavanagh said meeting that goal should be easier if lawmakers do make more cash available.
He acknowledged, though, there may be reasons some districts cannot get to that number, perhaps because of unusual expenses like high transportation costs due to a sprawling rural area or particularly high costs to keep older buildings heated or chilled.
“A waiver from the (state school) superintendent might work, so long as the criteria for issuing the waiver is reasonably precise so there's no abuse and highly transparent,” Kavanagh said.
A spokeswoman for John Huppenthal, who has been state school superintendent since being elected in 2010, said late Friday he was not available to comment on the report.