When it comes to K-12 public education, Arizona is in a truly unique situation compared with the rest of the nation. Decades of sustained changes to the state education system have made Arizona something of a Wild West for education reform. Over that time, student achievement on national assessments has steadily risen, and many families have come to embrace a culture of pluralistic, customized education. These gains have been driven in no small part by disadvantaged students.
The fact that Arizona has managed to do this through waves of immigration, demographic changes, and the Great Recession—all on a lean budget—is a remarkable achievement. While the standard state K-12 ranking systems, such as those published by U.S. News and World Report and others, give Arizona’s education system poor marks, alternative ranking systems that consider additional factors like spending efficiency and educational quality place Arizona much higher on their lists.
But there’s a very different way of looking at these changes. Critics of the current policies point to the fact that Arizona consistently ranks near the bottom of national rankings on per-pupil spending and teacher pay. They also frequently blame the dramatic expansion of school choice programs for creating a flurry of financial and cultural pressures on the traditional school district model. Innovative programs—charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and statewide open enrollment—while popular among many Arizona families, have also introduced a lot of tensions and complications that a standard, zip code-based public school system wasn’t designed to accommodate.
Transportation challenges, unpredictable facility needs, shrinking and rural districts, growing populations of both students and retirees, unfair funding—these are all distinct policy problems that have become part of the new educational equilibrium in the Grand Canyon State.
Both of these narratives have a great deal of truth to them, and at the root of many of these tensions is a lagging school finance system. Paving the way for more progress requires that policymakers and thought leaders direct their attention beyond immediate concerns around expanding school choice or increasing teacher pay and examine the bedrock principles governing Arizona’s public school funding. Only then can these various priorities be competently balanced so that funding is more equitable and more easily follows kids to their selected school.