The state's charter schools are demanding more money from taxpayers, to the tune of $135 million a year.
Attorney Kory Langhofer said lawmakers are not living up to their obligation to treat all public schools equally. Langhofer pointed out that charter schools — even those run by private for-profit entities — are considered public schools under Arizona law.
But Langhofer said they do not have the same access to funds.
The result, he said, is that charter schools get at least $1,100 less per student than traditional public schools, and Langhofer wants the state Court of Appeals to rule that disparity is unconstitutional.
Langhofer lost the first round earlier this year when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama said he found nothing legally wrong with the disparity. “Because charter and district schools are different, the Legislature may fund them differently,” he wrote.
But Langhofer contends Gama used the wrong legal standard to justify the disparity.
The bid for more funding is getting a fight, not only from the state Department of Education but the Arizona School Boards Association. That group's attorney, Don Peters, said lawmakers are doing nothing wrong.
Hanging in the balance is that $135 million a year net difference — money that would have to come from somewhere.
The idea behind charter schools was to create an alternative for parents.
Like public schools, they cannot charge tuition. And, generally speaking, they cannot pick and choose which students they will accept.
But they also are not subject to many of the same regulations as traditional schools, ranging from the training and qualification of teachers to even having to provide lunch facilities. And in Arizona, unlike many other states, they can be operated as for-profit entities by private organizations.
At the state level, basic state aid per pupil is pretty much identical.
Traditional districts, however, receive additional aid to operate their legally required school buses, based on the miles of school bus routes. They also get separate funding for things like books and computers, though charter schools also get additional aid.
Langhofer said that's the main focus of the lawsuit.
But the biggest difference is that traditional schools can supplement their funds with voter-approved bonds and budget overrides, tapping local taxpayers. Langhofer said that's not fair.
“If you live in District 1 and you send your children to a charter school, when District 1 passes a school bond, the money you pay in taxes for that school bond don't benefit your child at all,” he said. “The logic of it should be — or certainly could be — that if you live in a district and you're paying a school bond, your children, whether they go to charter or district school should get a slice of that.”
He conceded, though, that argument cannot be applied to parents sending children to private or parochial schools, but Langhofer said the difference is that charter schools are public schools.
That leads to some fairly complex legal arguments Langhofer hopes to get the Court of Appeals to accept, arguments that Gama dismissed.
One is his contention that separate funding schemes for the two types of public schools is discriminatory because interferes with charter students' fundamental right to an education. That is based on constitutional requirements for equal protection of individuals under the law.
Peters said that does not apply here.
“The students have rights to an education,” he said. “They don't have rights to have a particular institution funded in a particular way.”
Anyway, Peters said, the rights of every school-age child in Arizona are already equal.
“They can all choose a charter school, they can all go to a district school,” he said. Peters said parents of charter school students made that choice — and now are complaining about how that institution is financed.
Peters said there is no evidence that the current funding scheme for charter schools leads to an inadequate education. Even Gama, in his ruling, said the challengers are not claiming the education that students get at charter schools is not adequate.
Langhofer said that's irrelevant.
“The proper question is whether they have an equal starting point,” he said.
Langhofer said it's possible that a student attending a charter school has parents who are very involved and who is smart and works hard may be able to get an equal education, even with the school having fewer financial resources. But he said that forces students to “work extra hard to overcome that.”
“The lawsuit shows that charter school students are being forced to start behind the starting line because they're started at a worse point than the district school students,” he said.
Langhofer said it was the Legislature itself who decided to allow charter schools — and, more to the point, to designate them as public schools.
“The charter schools are supposed to be an alternative to district schools, and not just an alternative that exists as an idea but an alternative that will improve on the state of education in Arizona,” he said.
That, however, does not mean they are the same.
Peters said one reason for the funding disparity is that the state provides capital funding for new buildings for traditional schools. That's because schools a permanent political subdivisions of the state.
“Charter schools, by contrast, go out of business with regularity,” he said, citing figures from the Department of Education that more than 100 charter schools have stopped operating in recent years.
“The Legislature might rationally be reluctant to invest millions of dollars in facilities for charter schools when those schools may discontinue operations at any time,” he said.
Peters said there also are different obligations, ranging from having facilities for food service to providing programs for preschoolers with disabilities who live within the district. And he said there are “extensive regulations” that take time and money, regulations that do not apply to charter schools.
Langhofer conceded there are differences, and he said that would legally allow the Legislature to give traditional district schools “a little bit more money to cover the additional costs.” But he said lawmakers never made any attempt to justify the disparity, instead simply deciding that charter schools are different and therefore they can be funded at a different level.