A new national report shows that Arizonans are spending far less of what they earn on education than most other states.
The U.S. Census Bureau pegs the amount of state aid per pupil for education at $4,335 a year. That is 41st in the nation.
And total spending from all sources in 2007, the most recent full-year statistics available, is $7,196, with only three states below that.
But the Census Bureau also calculated rankings based on each state's personal income - the total amount of money that residents earn.
There, Arizona did somewhat better on state tax dollars earmarked for public education, coming in 34th.
The same report, however, shows Arizona only 47th in total spending on education from all sources - and, comparatively speaking, dead last among all the states on the amount of money spent on classroom instruction.
State School Superintendent Tom Horne said Arizona can do better, if not now, then eventually.
"This year you can't do anything because there's no money," he said. "Part of my job is when the economy turns around and there are resources available, to persuade the Legislature to give a higher priority to K-12."
But Matthew Ladner, who studies education for the Goldwater Institute, said he doubts the accuracy of the data. He specifically questioned whether what Arizona spends in building new schools is included.
Justin Olson, who handles education finance for the Arizona Tax Research Association, said even if the figures are accurate, they may be meaningless.
He said many states are losing school-age population. But Olson, whose organization represents business taxpayers, said a decision has been made by policymakers elsewhere to keep funding schools at the same level, a move that shows up in higher per capita education funding.
By contrast, Olson said, Arizona's student growth is third highest in the nation. He said the state has struggled to keep pace without necessarily spending a lot more money.
One thing that has done, Olson acknowledged, is the number of students in classrooms in Arizona has ballooned. He pegs average class size in the state at 24.2 students to each teacher, a figure exceeded only by Utah.
Olson said, though, that's not necessarily a bad thing. He said the studies he has seen show no link between class size and academic achievement.
Horne, however, said that contention makes no sense at all.
"If you know teachers and you talk to teachers, there's no question in your mind," he said. "They tell you the effect that it has."
And Horne said the studies he has seen back that up.
More to the point, Horne said anyone who thinks money does not matter is mistaken. He said there is a high "coefficient of effectiveness" between classroom spending and educational achievement.
"Even at the spending levels we're at, our test scores are above the national average," he said. "So if we could get our resources up to the national average, I think we'd be one of the top, top states nationally in academics because of our emphasis on academic rigor in the classroom."
Olson said while the report does address instructional spending, it ignores the issue of teacher pay. ATRA claims that Arizona teachers are paid at about the national median, at an average of $47,388 a year.
More significant, he said, is when those salaries are compared to the average income of others in each state, Arizona teachers have, relatively speaking, the eighth highest wages in the nation.
But John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, said that comparison is meaningless.
"Are we making proportionally more than migrant farmworkers picking lettuce in Yuma? Absolutely," he said.
"Arizona has a disproportionately low income population because of the nature of our economy," Wright continued. "I frankly wouldn't brag about making that comparison."