Goldwater Institute Creates Public Student Spending Database

Published May 1, 2005

A January 19 report from the Goldwater Institute and Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation deconstructs Arizona’s school funding formulas and translates them into per-student amounts every Arizonan can access. The result is a comprehensive student funding database, available on the Goldwater Web site, and an accompanying analysis, “A Guide to Understanding State Funding of Arizona Public School Students.”

The online database gives Arizonans unprecedented access to the most accurate per-student expenditure data for students in all 218 regular Arizona public school districts. In addition, policymakers and the public can see how much education funding is directly tied to students and how much stays with school districts.

The analysis, which relies exclusively on Arizona Department of Education (ADE) financial reports and is the result of six months of study, finds the average per-student formula funding ranges between $4,200 and $4,600, depending on grade level. The per-student portion of district education funding averages $4,309, which includes local, county, non-equalized state, and federal revenue. Those figures are often ignored in published reports of school funding.

Thus, the average total spending for an Arizona public school student is between $8,500 and $9,000–far more than people might think.

Funding Formulas Highly Complex

A general consensus exists that K-12 public-education finance is based on complex funding formulas that very few people in any given state can understand, and Arizona is no exception. As the Arizona Republic editorialized on January 26, “Arizona’s system of school finance has become such a Rube Goldberg puzzle of complicated formulas piled atop still more formulas that the most basic questions about school finance are practically unknowable.”

For example, in its 2004 Rankings & Estimates report, the National Education Association (NEA) said Arizona spends $5,009 per student, while Education Week‘s 2004 Quality Counts ranking claims the state spends $5,487. Meanwhile, financial and student enrollment data from the state superintendent’s Annual Financial Report 2004 indicate the statewide per-student average spending in Arizona is more than $8,517.

With so many conflicting figures, it has been difficult to know what’s being spent to educate a student in one of Arizona’s public schools. The state itself does not synthesize the ADE’s multiple accounting systems.

The Goldwater Institute’s new database allows policymakers to calculate the fiscal impact on school districts and the state if students are given education grants to attend private schools. For instance, if 5 percent of public school students in Arizona (roughly 40,000 children) transferred to private schools using elementary education grants worth $3,500 and high school education grants worth $4,500–both less than the average state formula funding per student–the net savings to the state and local districts would have been $32 million in fiscal year 2003. Total funding in half of the school districts would have remained unchanged; in the other half it would have decreased by less than 1 percent.

Interest Groups Attempt Suppression

Some interest groups have tried to prevent parents and taxpayers from getting easy access to information about the amount of money being spent on students and the savings impact private school grants would have on the state.

In a letter dated January 25, 2005 (titled “Distortions and Errors Undermine Goldwater Report on School Funding”), Chuck Essigs and Jim DiCello, lobbyists for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, complained that presenting in one place all fiscal year revenue data as reported by the ADE “is confusing, misleading, and not right.” The lobbyists praised the ADE for having “the knowledge and insight not to present” financial data this way.

On February 2, 2005, Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association; Harold Porter, executive director of Arizona School Administrators; and John Fung, executive director of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, sent Essigs and DiCello’s remarks and a cover letter to members of the Arizona legislature, urging policymakers to disregard the Goldwater report’s findings, “[s]ince this report provides information that distorts the funding of Arizona schools.”

Despite their best efforts, detractors have been unable to reverse the tide of transparency. As the Arizona Republic concluded in its January 26, 2005 editorial, “The fact that some interest groups are throwing rocks at the study’s conclusions is helpful. Debate is good. What is not helpful to parents, to educators, to policymakers would be ignoring this yeoman’s attempt at shining the light of day on a matter that so few people comprehend.”

Vicki Murray, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Educational Opportunity at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona.

For more information …

The full text of Goldwater Institute Policy Report #200, “A Guide to Understanding State Funding of Arizona Public School Students,” by Susan Aud and Vicki Murray, January 19, 2005, is available online at

The student funding database is online at