A tale of unequal funding at 2 Arizona schools

The Arizona Republic
Monday, January 5, 2015
Sean McCarthy

Laurie Roberts' Dec. 23 column highlighting public schools that do not receive funding through school tax-credit programs captures a major equity issue. Some school districts have the ability to make use of the program in a far greater capacity than others, which potentially runs afoul of the Arizona constitutional requirement that our schools be "general and uniform."

However, the disparity created by the tax-credit program pales in comparison to the inequity driven by other loopholes in Arizona's school finance system.

Just down the street from our state capitol sits Arthur M. Hamilton Elementary of the Murphy Elementary School District. One mile away from Hamilton is Mary McLeod Elementary of the Phoenix Elementary School District.

Both serve low-income students: 95 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches. According to the latest auditor general report, Phoenix Elementary spends $9,494 per pupil on its general fund while Murphy Elementary spends $8,631; this despite both districts having voter-approved overrides.

The difference? Phoenix Elementary receives an extra $1,654 per student annually ($11.1 million) via local property taxes for "desegregation/Office of Civil Rights (OCR) remediation."

In the early 1980s, the Phoenix Elementary District violated someone's civil rights and subsequently received a letter from OCR. State statute allowed them to levy additional money to rectify the situation without limitation. The first year they took a modest $44,000, probably to hire a coordinator to address the issue. The amount grew to its present annual levy of $11 million, all of which comes from local property taxpayers.

The Legislature capped desegregation levies in 2009; the 19 districts who found the loophole had grown those levies 2000 percent since their inception.

Theoretically, the money is for resolving the initial problem. In reality, it allows Phoenix Elementary to spend more on salaries and have smaller student-to-teacher ratios. Their ratio is 14-1 versus 21-1 down the street.

Most Arizonans would be surprised to learn state law allows for such inequities. Parents at Arthur Hamilton Elementary certainly would like to know why it exists.

Sean McCarthy is senior research analyst at the Arizona Tax Research Association.