Arizona schools spent less of their funds in the classroom during the 2008-09 school year than any time since the figures have been tracked.
A new report Thursday from Auditor General Debbie Davenport shows that just 56.9 cents of every dollar of school spending wound up in what her agency classifies as instruction. Last year the figure was 57.3 cents.
The highest the number ever got since the report was first produced eight years ago is 58.6 cents.
In her report to lawmakers, Davenport said that classroom spending should not be the sole basis for determining each school district's financial performance. But she said the report - and comparing the figures for the individual districts - is useful.
"Available data indicates that in Arizona, higher classroom dollar expenditures appear to be associated to some extent with higher student achievement," Davenport wrote. "Further, high spending outside the classroom is a potential sign of inefficient operations."
She cautioned, though, that some districts have unique situations that force them to spend more outside the classroom, such as long bus routes or a large number of students with special needs. In those cases, Davenport said, the low percentage of classroom spending may be justified.
But Davenport said the report shows another trend: Some districts are taking money that was given to them by voters in 2000 specifically for classroom spending and diverting it to other expenses, "which is a violation of state law."
The report comes as Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, is trying to get voters to enact a requirement for schools to spend at least 65 cents of every dollar in the classroom or explain publicly, every year, why they can't meet that goal and where their cash is going.
But Pearce's measure has run into problems, with Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, who leads the Senate Committee on Education Accountability and Reform, refusing to give it a hearing.
It also comes amid a debate over not just that 65-cent figure but questions about how spending is classified.
The instruction side is composed almost exclusively of the salaries and benefits for teachers and aides, with the balance including textbooks and other classroom supplies.
State School Superintendent Tom Horne said that leaves out things that are necessary for learning and successful operation of schools, including guidance counselors, librarians and nurses. And he questioned whether districts should be penalized for certain things out of their control, like cooling costs in hot weather and the costs for bus drivers and gasoline.
Davenport also said that, in general, larger districts also appear to be able to spend more of their money on classroom instruction, possibly because they can spread fixed costs like building maintenance over more students. Conversely, small districts spent a lot more per student than their larger counterparts on pure administrative expenses.