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Public School Spending Surged During COVID But Teacher Pay Didn’t Follow Despite Funding

July 27, 2022

By Terri Jo Neff |

If state lawmakers provided nearly 28 percent more funding to increase the salaries of Arizona’s public school teachers between 2018 and 2021, why did those teachers’ pay only go up 16.5 percent? And how did Arizona’s public schools spend billions of federal COVID funds?

Those are among the questions related to public school expenditures addressed in a policy report released this week by the Goldwater Institute which uses Arizona as a case study to delve into how school districts allocated COVID funds and why teachers have not seen meaningful pay increases dispute funding being made available to their district boards.

The report, “The COVID Funding Flood: How Spending Surged in Arizona’s Public School System Amid the Pandemic Era” by Matt Beienburg contains information which lawmakers, school district stakeholders, and the public can learn from when addressing future school funding issues.

Beienburg, Goldwater’s Director of Education Policy, provides data showing that the flood of taxpayer spending in response to COVID was “ostensibly meant to address the harms of the pandemic” but actually led to a massive overspending of federal funds, triggered a costly cycle of fiscal irresponsibility within K-12 public schools, and prioritized the interests of teachers’ unions “over student wellbeing.”

And during that time, the long-running pattern of public school districts increasing overall spending without meaningfully raising teacher salaries continued, according to Beienburg’s report. It should not be surprising then that district boards and administrations engaged in the same type of redirection when it came to COVID funds, the report notes.

Some key findings of the policy report are:

· Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, Arizona lawmakers increased funding for teacher pay by 27.9 percent. But district schools provided only a 16.5 percent average teacher pay raise during that time, showing many district boards chose to use the funds for other expenditures and not what the legislators, teachers, and parents understood those funds were being used for.

· Arizona public school districts triggered a massive statewide enrollment decline of nearly 50,000 students as a result of their COVID mitigation protocols (i.e. closures, mask mandates) even as charter school enrollment rose and state and federal taxpayer funding for all public schools surged during the pandemic;

· Arizona school districts spent a significantly smaller proportion of their federal COVID funds (23.6 percent) compared to charter schools (31.3 percent) during the peak of the pandemic through June 2021. This was primarily due to a disproportionately high level of funding that districts have received from legislation but accumulated instead of spending at that time.

· The vast majority of public school districts’ expenditures of federal COVID funds for technology and school facilities upgrades occurred more than a full year after most public schools reopened for in-person learning. This suggests the funds are being primarily used for a non-COVID-related purpose. According to Beienburg’s report, the “COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of unprecedented spending on public K-12 schools, yet available evidence suggests that the bonanza of federal spending was almost entirely avoidable and that much of it will likely serve a very different purpose than the one originally sold to policymakers and the public.”

The report recommends that to avoid this sort of institutional failure in the future, policymakers in other states should seek to replicate the steps taken by the Arizona legislature to mandate reporting requirements on the use of all federal COVID stimulus funds.

Beienburg’s full report can be read here.

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