The Arizona Department of Education has allocated $5 million to help teachers in the state with the classroom expenses they often pay out of pocket. This is part of this year’s federal COVID-19 relief funding for the nonprofit crowdfunding program DonorsChoose. It aims to provide thousands of K-12 educators across the state with money for technology, educational materials and school supplies. Teacher salaries and funding per student in Arizona continue to rank among the lowest of US states. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman about the program and the funding challenges facing public education.
Ryan Heinsius: What do you hope to accomplish with this program?
Kathy Hoffman: We hear a lot about teacher shortage issues in Arizona and how teachers are leaving for other professions that may have higher pay. And so, here at the Ministry of Education, we have focused on this issue by thinking about how we can strategically leverage funding to support our teachers and educators to ensure they feel valued and empowered. Our educators, they want to do the best for their kids in their classroom, and so through this partnership with DonorsChoose, it’s a way for us to basically funnel dollars directly to teachers so they can buy classroom supplies and things for class projects that otherwise they might not have the ability to fund.
RH: And 40% of the $5 million in this program goes to rural districts. How do the needs of teachers outside of the state’s major population centers differ from those outside of, say, Phoenix or Tucson?
KH: I would say that generally our schools in rural parts of the state are often smaller schools with smaller student populations. They might have less funding available to them because they have a smaller student body. I just heard from them that they spend more money out of pocket to buy even basic things like books or if they wanted to do something fun like a gardening club or robotics – but do not have access to additional funds for these types of creative ways to support our students’ learning.
RH: Is there a funding disparity between urban and rural schools?
KH: Yes, there absolutely are. And it really comes down to student enrollment numbers. We fund schools on a per student basis, so the smaller the school, the fewer resources it will have. Sure, they only need a smaller number of employees to support them, but recruitment and retention can be very difficult. I know a lot of our schools in rural parts of the state are really struggling to find specialist teachers and specialists like speech therapists. They may struggle to find certified math or science teachers, and as I said, they ultimately have less money, both federal and state, available to them because they have a smaller number of students they serve.
RH: Ultimately, why do educators and state administrators have to rely on outside funding for basic classroom expenses? Shouldn’t that be the state that covers most of this?
KH: I completely agree that the state should be responsible for this. Especially since the recession, Arizona made more cuts to public education than any other state in the country around 2008-2009. And we are still recovering from these massive cuts to public education. So I think when we have investments like this DonorsChoose partnership and the funding that we give to our teachers to buy supplies for their classrooms, we know that actually has a very positive impact on whether our teachers feel valued and are actually more likely to continue teaching in our schools.
RH: And, of course, this persistent lack of funding is nothing new, and the state still ranks near the bottom in the United States for per-student funding and teacher salaries. What can be done to change the culture of school funding in the state?
KH: The bottom line for me is that we need our state legislators, the legislature and the governor – who we know we will have a new governor here very soon – that we need them to see the public education as an investment rather than an expense. . And also, for me, it’s about the future of our state. These children are our future workforce. For me, it is a way of investing in the strength of our economy. There is a direct correlation between having strong schools and having strong housing markets as well, there are so many benefits for our state, not only to have a high quality education, but also economically for the future of our state.