Frontera Fund News

School Funding, Prop 123 and Latino Students’ Raw Deal

Latino students

When it comes to school funding shortages in Arizona, Latinos are the largest and most vulnerable group of students. That’s bad news for everyone in the state.

When Arizona voters go to the polls on May 17 to cast their ballots on controversial Prop 123, they’ll be asking themselves, “How desperate are we for school funds?” 

The proposition would divvy out $3.5 billion to K-12 schools over the next decade – a much-needed boost for a state that ranks 50th in the nation in education funding.

But the dollars would be raised by taking more money annually out of the state land trust, which is dedicated to education funding. The withdrawal rate would jump from 2.5 percent to 6.9 percent – likely faster than the fund can replenish itself. 

It’s essentially like borrowing from your younger child’s college fund to pay for your first born’s tuition. If you can’t find a way to refill your nest egg, you’re going to have big problems in a few years. But if you desperately need dollars now, do you have a choice? And our students desperately need dollars.

In 2011, Arizona spent $8,806 per K-12 pupil (including all federal, state, and local monies), compared to the national average of $12,411 per pupil, putting it at 47th out of 50 states. In 2013, when ranked by state funding sources alone, Arizona was dead last in per pupil spending.

You can read about reasons to vote for Prop 123 here, reasons to reject it here, and a pro-con debate here.

Whatever happens, the group that will be most affected by school funding issues is Latino students. 

In 2010, nearly 90 percent of Latinos age 25 and older had not completed a college degree.

“We have a trend,” said ASU’s Dr. David Garcia at a recent talk hosted by the Arizona Latino School Board Association. “More and more funding is moving away from the state level to local funding… and anytime you have local funding in Latino communities, you can count on that funding being inequitable.”

That’s because K-12 public schools are supported by a combination of federal dollars, state money, and local funds from the area’s property taxes, bonds and overrides, and families. And property values in majority Latino communities are lower – much, much lower. 

Elementary school districts in communities with fewer Latinos can generate tax revenues from a property value base that is almost three times higher per pupil than the property value pool in Latino communities, according to Garcia’s soon-to-be-published study.

“The biggest battle we have in education is poverty. Communities in poverty are less stable, and it’s the instability that is most detrimental to students.”

The trend toward local funding also means schools sometimes ask parents to reach into their pockets to pay for extracurricular activities. In these cases, families in Latino neighborhoods are also disadvantaged because they typically earn lower incomes. In school districts with a high percentage of Latinos, 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to 43 percent in other districts.

Schools in lower socio-economic districts get a larger slice of the state fund pie in an effort to make up for the property tax difference. Still, when you add state and local funds together, students in predominantly Latino districts receive $300 less per pupil than students in other districts. 

Fortunately, federal funds compensate for the discrepancy. But even so, Latino schools must overcome greater challenges than other schools – with similar resources.

“The biggest battle we have in education is poverty,” Garcia says. “It is not the issue that students in poverty have less resources. The primary issue is that students in poverty, families in poverty, communities in poverty are less stable than other communities. And it’s the instability that is most detrimental to students in terms of completing their education.”

Students in Latino communities face a welter of other challenges. Many are English language learners. Most do not have parents who are savvy about navigating the American education system. If they and/or their parents are undocumented, they suffer the constant, stressful fear of deportation. Their immigration status and lack of funds may effectively prevent them from pursuing higher education.

Arizona High School Graduation Rate

But the success of Latino students is vital for everyone in Arizona – regardless of their ethnicity or political beliefs. 

Latinos are the state’s fastest-growing group. But their average education level and income is substantially lower than those of whites. In 2010, nearly 90 percent of Latinos age 25 and older had not completed a college degree, compared with 69 percent of whites. By 2030, those numbers are not projected to change.

In today’s world, a college degree is becoming more and more essential – both for individuals and the economy they collectively create. If the state’s majority population makes less income, they spend less and contribute fewer taxes, which weakens economic growth and drains available public funds.

One study estimated that if Arizona could halve its number of Latino high school dropouts, those students would earn an extra $31 million annually and spend an extra $23 million a year.

To improve education, Arizona must implement high-quality early childhood programs across the board, and prioritize schools in Latino communities. It must ramp up the quality of schools and make coursework more rigorous. It must recognize that higher-need schools need more resources – both financial and human. It must improve the pipeline for Latino students going from high school to higher education.

Meanwhile, what can the public do to change the situation and improve Latino students’ chance for success?

“First and foremost,” Garcia says, “vote.”