With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, rural Arizona will soon have the funds to repair roads and bridges and connect Arizonans to schools and other municipal services.
The bill invests over $10.2 million into rural Arizona through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s Secure Rural Schools Program. Statewide, over $969 million will go to maintenance in roads, bridges, and highways – $45 million of which will focus on repairing and replacing 130 bridges in poor condition.
Ten Arizona counties, in predominantly rural areas, have lost more than 10,000 students total in the past decade, moving to more populated areas like Maricopa County. In the same timeframe, the student population of Maricopa County has risen by more than 70,000, according to enrollment data, and now includes 66 percent of the state’s student population, up from 60 percent in 2000.
Arizona’s school funding is calculated depending on the number of pupils in the classroom, meaning schools with fewer students receive less funding, which means fewer educational opportunities for students and a much harder task to recruit and pay qualified teachers. Furthermore, rural communities cannot easily offset state funding losses with local taxes, like wealthier suburban districts can. Additionally, rural roads connecting schools are often perilous and inaccessible, forcing families to move away and leaving disadvantaged schools to suffer.
Such is the case for one elementary schoolhouse in Crown King, which has one teacher and one student, and is connected to an unpaved main road with parts so narrow only one car can fit. Yavapai County, where Crown King is located, has lost more than 2,300 students in the past decade.
The next closest elementary school is in Mayer, more than an hour away and connected to a road that is extremely difficult for a school bus to navigate, and during inclement weather, is almost impossible for regular cars to travel.
Another issue facing rural schools is the cost of living in some areas of Arizona can be too high for teachers to live in the same area in which they are employed, which hurts the school district’s ability to recruit and retain teachers. Sedona is one such city. The median home value is about $513,800, according to Zillow, and there is a meager amount of long-term rentals available. This housing shortage means teachers who work in Sedona but live in more affordable areas must endure longer commute times, and young families are disincentivized to live there, further decreasing enrollment.
Diminishing enrollment can mean schools in more affordable areas closing their doors. Such is the case in 2018 when the board of Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District closed down Big Park Community school, an elementary school by the suburbs of Oak Creek. The district lost 300 students in the past seven years, and the Department of Education data shows enrollment dropped under 1,000 students in the last two.
“I just feel like we’re getting left behind,” Hollie Sheriff commented as a parent and board member of Sierra Vista Unified School District in southern Arizona, “And it’s impacting not only the students that we serve, but our communities. I think we deserve more.”
Teaching professionals and politicians alike are making efforts to address these issues. The funding from the Infrastructure bill will improve the poor conditions of the state’s roads and bridges. Also, Arizona’s Department of Education is currently developing a program called “Arizona Student Opportunity Collective,” which will connect rural students online with a network of qualified teachers, but broadband internet access remains a hurdle since it is not yet universally accessible across the state.
Some of the inequities facing rural Arizona schools will hopefully be addressed with help from this multi-million dollar investment, which will make these schools more accessible.