Ducey denies K-12 education spending report

Gov. Doug Ducey, center, helps break ground Wednesday for a new branch of GreatHearts Academy, a nonprofit charter school network. The campus is being financed with public help because of legislation pushed by the governor to have the state guarantee payment on its borrowing.

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Gov. Doug Ducey, center, helps break ground Wednesday for a new branch of GreatHearts Academy, a nonprofit charter school network. The campus is being financed with public help because of legislation pushed by the governor to have the state guarantee payment on its borrowing.

PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey is fighting back against a report by a left-leaning research group that shows Arizona is spending less on K-12 education today than before the recession when inflation is taken into account.

“That’s a false report by a left-wing public interest group,’’ Ducey said Wednesday just moments after helping break ground for a new charter school in west Phoenix that is being built, at least indirectly, with the help of the state treasury.

“It’s up 10 percent since 2015,’’ the governor said. “It’s above per-pupil rates, inflation adjusted since the Great Recession.’’

But figures obtained by Capitol Media Services from state legislative budget staffers paint a different picture over the past decade than the one being claimed by Ducey.

The legislative report shows state aid to K-12 in the 2007-2008 school year at $5.12 billion. That has increased to $5.33 billion in the current budget year.

On a per-student basis, however, the figures went from $4,949 to $4,760 during the same period. And when accounting for inflation over the same period, the current per-student figure is less than $4,200.

Ducey said the state really had no choice but to cut funding during the recession.

“We went through a tremendous downturn,’’ the governor said.

Now, he said, the budget is balanced And he touted the $163 million in additional dollars put into K-12 this past budget year above and beyond inflation and student growth.

That includes $34 million for a 1.06 percent teacher pay raise, with a like amount promised for next year, too, and $37 million for “performance-based funding,’’ with the dollars going to high-performing schools, generally in more affluent neighborhoods.

But only half of that $163 million is ongoing funding, with the rest being a one-time infusion, mostly for new school construction.

The report by the Center for Budget and Planning Priorities acknowledges that things have gotten better lately.

It says that total state K-12 funding dropped 36.6 percent between 2008 and 2015 on a per-student inflation-adjusted level. But when you extend the numbers out to the current budget year, the drop is just 13.6 percent.

And that’s pretty much in line with the numbers of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee despite Ducey’s protestations that the CBPP numbers are inaccurate.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said an analysis by the governor’s own budget people show inflation-adjusted per-student state aid actually is up, albeit a bit, from $4,140 in the 2008-2009 school year to $4,155 now.

But any comparison to either the CBPP or JLBC numbers is invalid, as both reports use the prior school year as a base. That is significant, as the state spent $521 million more on education in the 2007-2008 school year than in the year Ducey wants to use as a base.

Scarpinato also claims the JLBC numbers are inaccurate because they fail to consider federal stimulus dollars. But the state used those for only two years, and their addition and eventual subtraction do not affect the overall change in state funding over the period.

Ducey’s response to the CBPP report following an event where he helped break ground for a new charter school for Great Hearts Academies. The nonprofit organization runs 29 schools in Arizona and Texas.

Part of the financing is coming, at least indirectly from the state, the result of a measure Ducey pushed through the Legislature in 2016 for “credit enhancements’’ for charter schools with the state effectively guaranteeing lenders that the loans will be paid back. That assurance, in turn, lowers the interest rate that lenders are charging.

The governor said that comports with his goal of creating more educational opportunities, with the loan guarantees enabling schools with waiting lists to construct new campuses.

That, however, still leaves the question of what is happening at traditional neighborhood public schools, particularly in low-income areas.

“We have not been providing the education those kids deserve,’’ the governor said. He said that finding ways to build more charter schools “is part of the solution.’’

“This is one more tool in the toolbox,’’ Ducey said.

But the report and the groundbreaking for the charter school come as the state faces a lawsuit filed by traditional public schools that charge the state is failing to meet its legal obligations to not only construct new schools and make major repairs but also to provide dollars for other capital needs ranging from computers to buses.