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Think tank: Arizona’s education funding cuts third-deepest in nation

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PHOENIX – Only Oklahoma and Alabama made deeper percentage cuts to K-12 education funding than Arizona during the economic downturn, according to a Washington-based think tank.

A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which describes itself as nonpartisan but is generally regarded as liberal, said Arizona reduced per-student funding by 17.2 percent from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2014 when adjusted for inflation.

Last year, the center ranked Arizona as having the nation’s deepest cuts education funding, an inflation-adjusted drop of 21.8 percent from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2013.

“It’s been a disaster, the cuts in education,” said state Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Scottsdale, who served on the Scottsdale School Unified District’s governing board for eight years.

Meyer said the state keeps cutting education funding while requiring schools to do more, such as implement the Common Core State Standards and the technology requirements that come with them.

“We cut the funding for soft capital, which is one of the things that could be used to buy supplies that used to buy new books and computers so that we could implement the Common Core,” Meyer said.

Arizona was near the bottom for per-pupil education spending in 2011, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in May that said the state spent an average of $7,666 per student. The national average was $10,560.

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, an independent watchdog group that promotes limited government and free enterprise, said cuts during the recession are understandable given that education funding accounts for nearly half of the state’s general fund expenditures.

“When you have a state that goes through a financial downturn, where else can they go to make ends meet?” he said.

Despite the cuts, Arizona still spent a lot of money on education, Butcher said, adding that he doesn’t accept the notion that simply spending more would improve the quality of education.

“There are a lot of cost-effective ways to educate students that are cheaper and make the better use of the resources we have,” he said.

Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said citing the recession is a bad excuse for cutting education funding.

“The economy was horrible during that period of time, but the Legislature’s bad attitude toward public schools started a long time ago,” he said.

Debra Duvall, executive director of the group Arizona School Administrators, said that while the cuts have hurt, schools have worked to maintain the performance of students.

“Our students’ achievement is well above third bottom of all the states,” she said. “Our schools and teachers and school districts are doing a lot with the few dollars that they receive.”