Cash-Strapped Arizona Schools Tap Parents for Money to Operate

Arizona ranks near the top of the list of states that have made the biggest cuts to their education budgets over the past several years, and now teachers and parents are struggling to figure out how to deliver a quality education to children while working within tight financial constraints — and direct funding from parents and the community is an increasingly-popular solution.

Protests against cuts, as well as an attempt to pass a ballot measure that would create a permanent 1% sales tax with the money going towards education funding, have waned. Districts are waking up to the fact that they still have students to teach and schools to run and that everyone will have to pitch in to make that happen.

According to the state's own auditors, the education budget in Arizona has declined by nearly 20% over the last four years. Although the trend is expected to be reversed in the 2014 budget currently being debated in the Arizona Legislature, everyone who depends on programs funded by the state's education money has come to expect that things will continue to be tight for the foreseeable future and that the lower level of funding is the "new normal" in the state.

The recession forced austerity on the state, including education spending. But many conservatives have viewed this as a chance to rein in government spending and a bureaucracy they believe had grown too large and inefficient. Reflecting this view, the governor and lawmakers haven't used rebounding revenue to restore cuts. Instead, the state has set a new, lower budget baseline.

"There's a lot of talk about being whole again," said Tracey Benson, communications director for the Arizona School Boards Association. "It doesn't seem to be a realistic expectation to think things will go back to where they were five years ago."

Schools have increasingly started turning to school support groups like parent-teacher associations to pick up some of the tab. According to a mother who heads up her school's PTA, said she was "shocked" when school officials asked her and other members to pay for a magazine subscription for 2nd and 3rd graders to be used in the classroom. Those kinds of expenses, she believes, should be covered by tax revenues.

Unless parents push back against these kinds of approaches, they're bound to become routine. Officials of the Scottsdale Unified School District have already indicated that they're planning to raise money in addition to the state funding to pay teachers rather than lay them off.

The target of these funding pleas is unclear, but parents are likely to be among them.

State budget cuts have meant no pay raises for most teachers, said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, a member of the Senate Education Committee. In the Cave Creek School District, board President David Schaefer said the tight funding means low salaries, with little prospect of increases in the near future. "We're struggling to get the starting salary to $30,000," he said. Class sizes have increased almost across the board, most educators and policymakers say. While there is ongoing debate about the effect of larger classes on pupil performance, most parents use class size to assess school quality, and the smaller, the better.

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