What Does a “Uniform” School System Mean?: Arizona Schools Fight for State Funding

By Helen Pauly. 

In 2022, Arizona spent less per student on public K-12 funding than any other state. For several years Arizona has ranked between forty-eighth and fiftieth in the nation for per-student state funding, with the issue getting substantially worse after major funding cuts by the state legislature beginning in 2009. This situation has been partially caused by a localized funding system where schools in Arizona are funded by bonds which are approved by the localities and neighborhoods in which the schools serve. These bonds will be repaid by future property taxes, meaning many rural schools do not have access to the type of money that is available to other schools because the surrounding neighborhoods are impoverished or have lower property values.  Although, at first glance, it may seem fair to have local control over school funding, this system has created a massive disparity between the quality of education that is available to different Arizona students based on their zip code.

But there is a group trying to amend this situation. The Center for Law in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against the State of Arizona back in 2017 on behalf of the Arizona School Boards Association, several school districts, and a private citizen. This litigation has been ongoing since that time, and a four-week trial is finally set to begin in May of this year at the Maricopa County Superior Court.

The History of Public School Funding in Arizona

This upcoming trial is a rematch in some ways of a prior case from the 1990s, which resulted in a massive increase in state public school funding for about a decade. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Arizona held in Roosevelt v. Bishop that the public education funding system violated the Arizona Constitution because the constitution requires the state legislature to provide a “general and uniform” public school system. The court observed the enormous variation between school facilities from district to district, noting that some schools had no libraries, computer rooms, or gymnasiums, while  others had all these and more. The court could not reconcile the funding system, which was based on a district’s property value and that property’s taxability, with the constitutional requirement of a “uniform” school system. 

Considering the history of the education provisions of the Arizona Constitution, the court found evidence that “an educated citizenry was extraordinarily important” to the framers of the state constitution who thought that “a free society could not exist without educated participants.” Reflecting on this history, the court then analyzed the text of the constitution and determined a definition for the “general and uniform” requirement. The court held that (1) “[s]chool financing systems which themselves create gross disparities are not general and uniform,” and (2) “[a]s long as the statewide system provides an adequate education, and is not itself the cause of substantial disparities, local political subdivisions can go above and beyond the statewide system.” 

To comply with the court’s holding, the state legislature established Students FIRST, a program to provide public schools with capital for emergency needs, building renewal, and new school construction. The Students FIRST program changed the public school funding landscape in Arizona for about a decade before the legislature began cutting back on funding again. The Arizona legislature cut billions from the budget that were added after the Roosevelt decision, causing many schools to fall back into disrepair. Additionally, the guidelines adopted in 1999 that set the adequacy standards for Arizona schools were never updated, resulting in many schools failing to keep up with new technologies or update their security systems.

How Does Arizona’s Constitution Compare to Other States?

All fifty state constitutions contain language that mandates the creation of a public education system, but the phrasing used varies from state to state and can lead to different results depending on court interpretation. For example, the Arizona Constitution in Section 1 of Article XI requires the legislature to “enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system[.]” This phrase “general and uniform” was the foundation of the Roosevelt decision and continues to be the crux of the current litigation to force the legislature to provide a minimum level of funding so that schools throughout the state are able to provide an adequate education. Several states have similar “uniform” language in their constitutions, while some other states have obsolete language, such as Alabama’s constitution which still requires schools to be segregated on the basis of race. On the other hand, Pennsylvania’s constitution contains the phrase “a thorough and efficient system of public education,” which was interpreted recently by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to require that “all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.”  

The difference between what qualifies as an “adequate” versus a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” education system is likely vast. Thus, although Arizona’s constitutional language can provide the backbone to argue for increasing state funding for the state’s public school system, other state constitutions contain much stronger protections for their citizens’ rights to education.

Why Sue for Funding Instead of Lobbying for It?

Arguably, Arizona’s school funding disparity issue is a legislatively created problem that requires a legislatively created answer. Both the former Governor Ducey and the current Attorney General Mayes have expressed concern about how much this litigation will cost the state and their hope to resolve the suit without going to trial. But the trial is coming up in only a matter of months, which begs the question: Why is litigation necessary?

The legislature has a constitutional responsibility to provide, as previously discussed, a “general and uniform” public school system for all Arizonans. This provision requires that all Arizonans have access to an “adequate” education. However, the legislature has been failing to uphold this requirement by cutting public school funding—leading to school buildings in severe disrepair and lacking much-needed updates for teaching materials such as textbooks and computers. Public interest groups have tried to lobby the legislature for several years, but the issue continues because the legislature has been resistant to increasing funding. Only a couple of years ago the legislature began to restore some of that cut funding—likely due in part to the pressure caused by this litigation.

If the legislature violates the constitution by failing to uphold its responsibilities, then interested parties may seek recourse in the judicial system. Just as in the 1990s, the Arizona legislature has been failing Arizonans by not providing sufficient funding for an adequate education throughout the state. This is an obligation that the State has failed to comply with, resulting in a need for judicial action. Fortunately, the state judiciary will have an opportunity to correct this once again in the upcoming trial this year.

School Classroom
"School classrom desk and chairs" is marked with CC0 1.0.

By Helen Pauly

J.D. Candidate, 2025

Helen is a law student at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She is originally from Orange County, California and she graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara in 2018 with a degree in chemistry. She spent a few years working before deciding to pursue a career in law. During her time at ASU, Helen has gotten involved on campus by becoming a McCarthy Fellow, Director of Operations for the American Constitution Society chapter on campus, and joining the Arizona State Law Journal as a Staff Writer. Helen moved to Phoenix with her fiancée, Blake, and their German Shepherd, Anais. In her downtime, Helen enjoys going to spin class and doing yoga.