The share of state tax dollars that actually winds up in the classroom continues to shrink.A new report Friday by the state Auditor General's Office found the percentage of funds that go to actual instruction dropped for the fourth year in a row.
The figure for 2007 was 57.9 cents of every dollar.
That compares with 58.3 cents the prior year - and 58.6 cents two years earlier.
Auditor General Debra Davenport said the figures also are about 3 cents below the national average of 61.2 cents as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.
But Davenport said that difference is not because school districts are top-heavy with administrators. She said administrative costs in Arizona schools average out at 9.5 percent, lower than the national figure.
That's still too much, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
He said the fastest way to increase the share of dollars that wind up in the classroom is to sharply cut the number of superintendents and other district staff. And the best way to do that, Horne said, is consolidating districts.
Horne said if he had his way, there would be only 20 districts in the entire state, not the more than 200 that now exist. And that, he said, would lead to better education.
"What happens is when your administrative cost per student is too high, you have less money to spend on teacher salaries," he said.
The Chandler Unified School District ranks 12th in the state, and highest among East Valley school districts, in the percentage of dollars spent in the classroom.
And unlike other districts in the state, the Chandler district actually spent slightly more of its money in the classroom in 2007 - 63.2 percent - than in earlier years.
"That's a reflection of our highly competitive teacher salaries," said spokesman Terry Locke. "When you pay teachers a highly competitive rate, your classroom portion of those dollars is going to go up."
The Scottsdale Unified School District, which ranks 26th in classroom spending, increased the amount it dedicates to the classroom from 60.5percent in 2006 to 61.3 percent in 2007.
That increase came through raises for teachers, who got a 6 percent raise in their compensation package last year while other groups in the district got about a 2 percent raise, said David Peterson, assistant superintendent for operations.
"We had a commitment to try to make sure that we supported our teachers and our certificated folks," Peterson said.
The new figures come five years after Gov. Janet Napolitano, in her first State of the State speech, said she would work to ensure that schools spent at least 62 cents of every education dollar in the classroom. But statewide, the figures for 2007 are less than when Napolitano took office.
Gubernatorial press aide Jeanine L'Ecuyer said staff are still studying the report. But she said the numbers "certainly raise some concerns."
Davenport found that, in general, larger districts spent a greater percentage of their dollars in the classroom. She said, though, that's not necessarily a function of lower administrative costs.
"For example, both large and small districts generally provide facilities such as gymnasiums for students," she said in her report to the Legislature. "However, the large districts can spread the costs associated with operating these facilities over more students. In fact, small districts maintain about twice the square footage per student as large and very large districts, on average."
The report, using national standards, defines "classroom dollars" to include teachers and aides, instructional materials, field trips, athletics and co-curricular activities such as choir and band.
One big difference, she said, was in student support services, things like counselors and nurses. Arizona schools spent 7.3 cents of every dollar for these services, compared with 5.2 percent nationwide.
"The difference may reflect higher staffing levels to address Arizona's higher percentage of at-risk students," she said. Davenport cited Census Bureau figures showing that, on average, 18.9 percent of school-age children in the state live in poverty; the national figure is 17 percent.
Arizona schools also spend a bigger share of education dollars on food services. Davenport said that could be due to the fact that a higher percentage of students in this state are participating in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-price meals to eligible children in low-income families.
The idea of combining districts is not new. A special commission, acting under a legislative mandate, has already recommended unification of some individual elementary school districts with high school districts.
Tribune writers Andrea Natekar and Amanda Keim contributed to this report.