Crowdfunding program aims to help Arizona teachers with classroom expenses
The Arizona Department of Education has allocated $5 million to help teachers in the state with classroom expenses they often pay for out of their own pockets. It’s part of this year’s federal COVID-19 relief funding for the nonprofit crowdfunding program DonorsChoose. It aims to provide thousands of K-12 educators statewide with money for technology, instructional materials and classroom supplies. Teacher salaries and per-pupil funding in Arizona continue to rank near the bottom of U.S. states. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman about the program and the funding challenges facing state education.
Ryan Heinsius: What do you hope to achieve with this program?
Kathy Hoffman: We hear a lot about the teacher shortage issues in Arizona, and about how teachers leave for other professions that may have higher salary. And so, here in the Department of Education we’ve been laser-focused on this issue in thinking about how can we strategically leverage funding to support our teachers and educators to make sure that they feel valued and empowered. Our educators, they want to do what’s best for their kids in their classroom, and so through this partnership with DonorsChoose, this is a way for us to essentially get dollars straight to teachers so that they can purchase classroom supplies and things for classroom projects that they might not otherwise have the ability to fund.
RH: And 40% of the $5 million in this program is going to rural districts. How do the needs of teachers outside the state’s major population centers differ from those outside, say, Phoenix or Tucson?
KH: I would say typically our schools in rural parts of the state are often smaller schools with smaller student populations. They might have less funding available to them because they have a smaller student population. I just hear from them that they’re spending more money out of their own pockets to buy even basic things like books or if they wanted to do something fun like a garden club or robotics—just not having the access to extra funds for those types of creative ways of supporting our students’ learning.
RH: Is there a funding disparity between urban and rural schools?
KH: Yes, there absolutely is. And it really does boil down to student enrollment numbers. We fund or schools on a per-pupil basis, so the smaller the school is the less resources that they’re going to have. Of course, they only need a smaller number of staff to support them but then recruitment and retention can be very challenging. I know many of our schools in rural parts of the state really struggle to find special education teachers and specialists like speech therapists. They may struggle to find certified math or science teachers, and like I said, they just ultimately have less dollars, both federal and state funding available to them, because they have a smaller number of students that they’re serving.
RH: Ultimately, why do educators and administrators in the state have to resort to outside funding for basic classroom expenses? Shouldn’t this be the state covering most of this?
KH: I strongly agree that the state should be responsible for this. Especially since the recession—Arizona made more cuts to public education than any other state in the country back around 2008-2009. And we’re still recovering from those massive cuts to public education. So, I do think when we have investments like this DonorsChoose partnership and the funding that we’re putting towards our teachers to purchase supplies for their classrooms, we know that that actually has a very positive impact on our teachers feeling valued and they’re actually more likely to continue teaching in our schools.
RH: And, of course, this persistent lack of funding is nothing new and the state still consistently ranks near the bottom in the U.S. for per-pupil funding and teacher salaries. What can be done to change the culture of school funding in the state?
KH: The bottom line for me is that we need our state lawmakers, the Legislature and the governor—who we know we’ll have a new governor here very shortly—that we need them to see public education as an investment rather than an expense. And also, to me, it’s about this is the future of our state. These children are our future workforce. This, to me, is a way to invest in the strength of our economy. There’s direct correlation between having strong schools and having strong housing markets as well, there’s so many benefits to our state, not just having a high-quality education, but also economically for the future of our state.