Mandate sought for more classroom money
April 1, 2005
By Howard Fischer and Mary Vandeveire
PHOENIX - Republican legislative leaders want Arizona voters to mandate that more money be put into classrooms.
But they don't want to provide it themselves.
Their proposal unveiled Thursday seeks a constitutional amendment to require that 65 percent of every dollar spent by schools be used for direct instruction. That includes not only the teachers but supplies, textbooks and certain school-related activities.
In Arizona, school districts put an average of 58.6 percent of their spending directly into classrooms in 2004, according to the state auditor general. That's lower than the national average, 61.5 percent at last count.
If the state House and Senate agree to send the proposal to the ballot, voters would decide in November 2006 whether to mandate the higher classroom spending starting with the 2007-08 school year.
"This would mean approximately $400 million more per year in the classroom without raising taxes," said Senate President Ken Bennett.
"Arizona's economic future is tied directly to the education of our citizens," he said, "and the education of the next generation is most directly affected in the classroom."
But John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, said schools make their spending decisions based on their individual and specialized needs. And they're doing it through school boards elected by local voters to determine community needs, he said.
In his own case, Wright said he teaches in Window Rock where the rural nature of the district translates into high transportation costs.
Bennett said districts far below the 65 percent classroom-spending goal would be in compliance as long as they shifted 2 percent of dollars per year to classroom spending until they reached that level.
He said those that could not hit 65 percent could petition the state schools superintendent for waivers. Those would be good for one year and could be renewed only if a district were making progress.
Supporters said four states already achieved the 65 percent goal: Utah, Maine, New York and Tennessee.
Aaron Willey, whose child attends Corbett Elementary School in Tucson, said the percentage of classroom spending isn't as important as the impact.
"It's always nice to hear there's more money going to the classroom, but I really don't know whether or not it's going to be a great effect," Willey said. "Does it mean other areas, like the breakfast program, are going to be cut? If they're important programs, then they should stay. As a voter, I need to read more about the proposal before I go in."
Classroom spending is defined nationally as money used for "instruction," including teacher salaries, books and other supplies, instructional aids, field trips and athletics and other co-curricular activities.
Tucson Unified School District spends 55 percent of its budget in the classroom, according to the auditor general.
"We've steadily increased from 2001 forward on our classroom dollars, and we're always looking to improve that," said Judith Knight, chief business officer for the district.
But the numbers for classroom spending don't fully reflect the investment in student instruction, Knight said. Librarians and counselors who teach in the classrooms can't be classified as classroom expenses, and some districts get grant funding for programs that can't be allocated as classroom expenses, Knight said.
"I think most districts would be fine to be judged on an even playing field, but let's have an even playing field," Knight said.
The Amphitheater school district spends 56.7 percent of its budget in the classroom. Sue Haas, principal at Keeling Elementary School in the Amphi district, said voters will have to know how districts will use the money to make improvements.
"It depends on what that 65 percent is going to buy and if it's going to meet the goals that we need to meet to help our kids," Haas said.
The proposal to boost classroom spending may oversimplify the challenges facing public schools, especially in Arizona, which ranks near the bottom in the country in terms of school funding, Haas added.
"There's a whole different set of needs in a school that's in an economically deprived area," Haas said. "It's going to take a lot more than increasing spending in the classroom to 65 percent."
Chuck Essigs, who lobbies for the Arizona School Administrators Association, said there are some legitimate reasons Arizona's classroom spending percentage is below the national average.
For example, he noted that Arizona schools spend 11.7 percent of their money on plant operation and maintenance, versus 9.7 percent nationally. Arizona schools have issues like high air-conditioning expenses, he said.
The state also ranks higher than nationally in student support services like keeping track of attendance as well as guidance counseling and health.
But the state is below the national average in administrative spending: 9.5 percent versus 10.9 percent, Essigs said.
Bennett and House Speaker Jim Weiers said they hope for bipartisan support. But their effort immediately took on political overtones.
For example, Randy Pullen, the Republican National Committee representative for Arizona, is going to lead the campaign to persuade voters to approve the plan. Pullen used Thursday's press conference to take a shot at Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
"It's clear to us we have a governor who is in the pocket of the educational lobby in this state," he said. Pullen said Napolitano "would not support anything that they don't support." He said that's the reason teachers weren't consulted about the proposal.
But gubernatorial press aide Jeanine L'Ecuyer said Napolitano's exhortations to school boards to divert more dollars to classrooms have paid off, to the tune of $100 million.
L'Ecuyer said she can't provide percentages because each district has a different definition of what constitutes classroom spending. The Auditor General's Office, which examined school district records, said classroom spending went from 57.7 percent in 2001 to 58.6 percent in 2004.
The ballot proposal actually originates with Tim Mooney, a consultant. Mooney, in turn, got Utah businessman Patrick Byrne, chief executive of, to agree to bankroll the proposal, with Arizona to be the testing ground.