WASHINGTON - Arizona public schools again had some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation in 2011, ahead of only Oklahoma, Idaho and Utah, according to a recent Census Bureau report.
The report said Arizona spent an average of $7,666 per student, well below the national average of $10,560 that year.
But while the state spent less overall, some education officials said it spent that money more efficiently, directing more to the classroom and less to overhead.
"If you look at a lot of the reports, it shows that Scottsdale and the state beat the nation on the amount of money that we spent in the classroom," said Daniel O'Brien, chief financial officer for the Scottsdale Unified School District.
"So even though we are at the bottom, we take that and give as much possible as we can into the classroom, instead of into administration," O'Brien said.
The Census report appeared to back that up: It said Arizona spent the lowest amount in the nation on school administration, at $315 per student compared to a national average of $571 per student.
Arizona was fifth-lowest on general administration spending - for school board and superintendent support - at $89 per student, compared to a national average of $199. Meanwhile, the state spent $1,049 per student on pupil support services, compared to $590 nationally.
The Census report also said that state funds made up a smaller portion of Arizona school revenue than in most other states. Schools in Arizona got 36.6 percent of their funds from the state, compared to an average of 44.4 percent in other states.
The rest of the money came from federal and local sources, which have grown in recent years as state revenue has fallen, said Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University. He said rising property values and federal education initiatives have helped boost local and federal funding.
Jimenez-Castellanos said spending cuts by the state have hurt Arizona's economic future because student achievement is lagging along with education spending.
"We are not adequately funding our K-12 educational system to be competitive nationally and most importantly globally," he said.
Chris Kotterman, deputy associate superintendent of policy development and government relations at the Arizona Department of Education, said the state's lower spending is tied in part to Arizona's lower cost of living.
A lot of per-pupil spending is tied to salaries and benefits, Kotterman said, so places with a higher cost of living usually spend more, even if the services are the same as those in districts with lower costs of living.
Erin Hart, chief operating officer at Expect More Arizona, said that some progress has been made but notes that the low per-pupil spending in Arizona has forced teachers to do a lot more with fewer resources. She hopes that is beginning to change.
"The fiscal year '14 budget that the governor has put forward and that the Senate has taken action on are both great steps in making some progress," Hart said.
"We still have a lot of room to get to where we need to be, but it would certainly be a very positive step in the right direction," she said. "We hope the House will pick up that trend and pick up where the Senate left off."