If Doug Ducey bragged about adding $70 per student to the K-12 education budget, the news would be received with yawns from the vaguely interested and howls of outrage from people who know Arizona needs to add a thousand dollars per student to reach Mississippi funding levels, two thousand to reach Arkansas and three thousand to reach Louisiana. In Arizona funding dollars, that translates to an added one billion, two billion and three billion dollars respectively.
So $70 per student, about $72 million total, doesn't even qualify as small potatoes compared to the funding Arizona needs to equal some of the poorest southern states, let alone the rest of the nation. It's chump change.
But Ducey is getting away with bragging about $72 million for schools by spending it, using words from his State of the State speech, "to reward and replicate success in our best public schools." Those "successful" schools will get either $225 or $400 per student from a program with the impressive-sounding name, results-based funding. True, only a quarter of the state's district and charter schools get any money, but it's supposed to be a reward for success, which sounds like a good thing.
Except that "success" is measured by the percentage of a school's students who pass the state's AZMerit exam, and as most everyone knows, students from higher income families tend to do a whole lot better on the tests than students from lower income families. So if it's all about passing rates, all the money would go to schools in high rent areas, and that would be too obviously, grossly unfair, even for Governor Ducey.
What to do?
The state's answer is, lower the passing rates to receive results-based funding for schools with a poverty rate above 60 percent. And while the most a school with higher income students can receive is $225 per student, schools with lower income students get a chance at $400 per student. It's a way of leveling the playing field.
The multi-layered funding system which accounts for schools' poverty rates sounds equitable, on paper anyway. But that's not how it works out in the real K-12 world.
The Star published a good article on the way results-based funding has been distributed in Pima County schools
. I'm going to combine information from the article with other data I pulled from state education spreadsheets.
In TUSD 17 schools received results-based funding, for a total of $1.8 million. Vail school district got a little more, $1.9 million, distributed among 14 schools (The Vail schools have more students, which is why it got more money than TUSD with fewer selected schools). That looks reasonably fair at first glance.
Except that TUSD has 45,000 students, and Vail has 13,000 students. Vail got three times more in per-student funding than TUSD.
Vail doesn't get all that extra results-based funding because its schools are being rewarded for their success educating their students. The district's students walk through the school doors with all the socioeconomic advantages that lead to high standardized test scores. The top poverty rate at a Vail school is 33 percent. Most of the TUSD schools that got the funding have a 60 to 95 percent poverty rate.
The state could create a far better balance in the way the funds are distributed if it wanted to. It's easy. Just plug the poverty rates and test score data into a computer program and create a system where schools have equal access to the money regardless of their students' family finances. The imbalance is purposeful. The money given to schools with lots of students in poverty is a fig leaf to cover the naked truth that the distribution system is rigged to benefit the children of the state's high income citizens.
The BASIS charter chain did even better than Vail. Its schools received more than $3 million. I would tell you the poverty rate at BASIS schools if I could, but that information is missing from the state's database. BASIS schools don't provide lunch for their students — with one exception — which means they don't have free and reduced lunch programs, and that's how the state determines schools' poverty levels. It should be no surprise that every BASIS school got results-based funding — with one exception — since the schools have multiple ways of ensuring its students are high achievers.
The one exception is BASIS Phoenix South Primary. It is the only school in the charter chain that didn't get results-based funding. It's also the only BASIS school where we know the poverty rate: 45 percent. That's because it's the only school in the charter chain on the state's free/reduced lunch list.
I could go on. All seven schools in Catalina Foothills district, for instance, got results-based funding, and none of them have a poverty rate above 17 percent.
But there's no need to go further. The conclusion is clear. If the students who walk through a school's doors have high family incomes, it's close to a sure thing the school will get results-based funding. As students' family incomes go down, and, ironically, the need for extra funding rises, the chance for getting results-based funding dwindles.