Let’s start with the good news.

A recent study by EdBuild found Arizona’s state funding formula for public schools to be one of the most equitable in the country, and one that supports students based on needs. We admire EdBuild’s attempt to present data according to school district boundaries, as much of the funding disparity can be found in local decisions.

However, when the report looked beyond average per-pupil funding and analyzed equity between white and nonwhite school districts, its estimation strategy fell short.

While we believe this is an area that deserves our attention, EdBuild’s methodology and outcomes are ripe for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

The report identified predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts across the country and compared state and local revenue on a per-pupil basis. In Arizona, the report found 23 school districts that qualified as predominantly white. However, when one digs a little deeper, the data shows that all of the predominantly white districts were small and rural, educating a total of 16,797 students. EdBuild compared those 17,000 students to the much larger group of predominantly nonwhite districts educating 291,158 students.

The estimation strategy used by EdBuild took the average per-pupil funding average in each predominantly white district and compare that to the average per-pupil funding average in predominantly nonwhite districts.

This “average of averages” exaggerates the disparity across Arizona’s school districts.

EdBuild is clear about their methodology and used the same standards across all states. In Arizona’s case, we must employ caution in interpreting the results.

Arizona’s small, rural districts have the option of taxing local property owners above normal limits set by the Legislature. In Arizona, we call it a “small school weight.” While this taxing ability contributes to funding inequities between districts, fewer than 1.5 percent of all Arizona students attend these small, rural public schools.

By way of example, Crown King School District is rural and very small, educating just one student. Crown King received $71,000 for that single student from state and local sources. The EdBuild estimation strategy gives this single student the same weight as the more than 47,000 students attending the Tucson Unified School District, which was included in the analysis as a predominantly nonwhite district.

Using a weighted average—treating the lone Crown King School District student as a student rather than a school district—shows a $772.98 difference in per-pupil funding between these two groups of districts. That is not a small disparity and is being driven primarily by a small school weight.

We agree with EdBuild that Arizona policymakers should seek an equalized system of school funding that is student-centered and move away from district-centric funding systems. This is especially true given the hundreds of thousands of Arizona students utilizing open enrollment across school districts and into other school models, like online learning, homeschooling, public charter schools, or private schools.

Moreover, EdBuild leaves both charter students funding formulas and facilities funding out of its calculations entirely. In a state like Arizona, where almost 200,000 students attend a public charter school and 30 percent of public schools are charter schools, we believe that is a huge missed opportunity. Two of the biggest sources of inequity are access to facilities funding and access to funding in property-wealthy districts versus property-poor districts and charter students.

School district funding in Arizona remains a local issue and depends heavily on the nature of the community in which the district sits. For example, local school boards that qualify for the small school weight decide whether to levy an additional tax on their property owners. Other local factors creating inequities between districts include bonds, overrides, and desegregation funding.

If Arizona wants to achieve an equalized formula that is fair to all Arizona students, policymakers will need to address these factors.

Specifically, we must figure out how to use resources more equitably for all public school students across the state, instead of allowing policies that “pool” funds within certain districts and not others.

At A for Arizona, we welcome conversations that will help our state achieve an equitable school funding system that prioritizes students over allegiance to school type or invisible boundaries.