The share of tax dollars that actually wind up in Arizona classrooms slid again last year, to the lowest level in the 11 years the state has been monitoring.
New figures Thursday from the Auditor General’s Office found less than 55 cents of every dollar schools received was used for “classroom spending.”
That includes 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 that 54.7 percent figure exposes only part of the situation.
That percentage — which comes out to $4,094 per student — is applied to total per-pupil operational spending in 2011 of $7,485. In fact, total per pupil spending has declined now for the second straight year.
In 2009, the total per-pupil figure was $7,908. So the 56.9 percent classroom spending figure that year translated out to $4,500.
Put another way, actual real-dollar classroom spending is 9 percent less than it was two years ago.
But Auditor General Debra Davenport said the culprit is not administrative costs, which includes superintendents, principals, business managers, clerical staffing and human resources. While that rose slightly, to 9.7 percent, she said it is still below the national average of 10 percent.
Davenport said other factors are at work in keeping classroom spending below the 61 percent national average.
One, she said, is classroom size.
“Compared to the most recent national average, Arizona has a larger student-to-teacher ratio,” Davenport said. Using 2009 figures — the most recent available on a national level — the national average was 15.3 students per teacher; it was 17.1 in Arizona.
And by last year, she said, Arizona class size grew to 18.1 students per teacher.
At the same time, Davenport said, Arizona school districts spent more on plant operations than the national average, most of which she said was for energy.
And Davenport said Arizona districts spend more on student support than the national average. That includes counselors, audiologists, speech pathologists, nurses, social workers and attendance services.
“The higher spending may be related to the state’s higher poverty rate” than the national average, she said. “Students living in poverty are more likely to use such support services.”
Davenport said money is not everything when it comes to student achievement. She said other factors include curriculum, teacher quality, parental involvement, school and class size, student use of technology and poverty rate.
But she said it does matter. Davenport said there is a “statistically significant relationship” between the percentage that school districts spend in the classroom and achievement, as shown by Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the AIMS tests.
Davenport said, though, this correlation could reflect something else: Districts with leaders who are efficient in controlling their non-classroom operating costs may also be efficient in promoting effective instruction.
Andrew LeFevre, press aide to state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, said his boss believes that classroom spending comparisons between Arizona and other states are not valid. LeFevre said Arizona has “special challenges,” including a large number of students with special needs as well as extremes of heat and cold that result in high utility bills.
LeFevre acknowledged that, even just considering Arizona-only numbers, the trend in classroom spending has been negative. But he said Huppenthal believes that is linked to the economy.
“We’ve been in tough economic times,” LeFevre said. “Arizona has been hit harder than other states.”