Arizona schools chief Tom Horne has reignited a bitter, decade-old debate over how much school choice should cost the state’s taxpayers by stumping for charter schools to get millions extra from the Legislature.
Newly re-elected, Horne announced last week that next year he will push state lawmakers to grant charter schools 15 percent more funding, totaling $78.5 million. The additional cash flow is needed to bring funding for the privately run public charters in-line with traditional public school districts, Horne said.
The proposal has drawn complaints from school choice advocates, who contend charters are supposed to offer a better education for less money than the districts do.
“It was never really, in my mind, understood that (charters) would necessarily have equal funding in every capacity because that wasn’t what they were asking for at the time,” said Rep. Mark Anderson, RMesa, of the argument behind allowing charters to begin operating in 1995.
Despite his reservations, Anderson agreed to sponsor the legislation at Horne’s request. School districts’ supporters have criticized Horne over the state Department of Education study used to justify the proposed increase.
The study was to provide an “apples-to-apples” comparison of taxpayer dollars given to districts and charters, said Lyle Friesen, school finance director for the education department.
However, Friesen acknowledged that many of the numbers used are purely theoretical, calculated to try and bridge the gap between two hugely different funding formulas.
The study indicates the state pays out more per student to charters than it does to districts. A disparity slighting charters emerges only when districts’ voter-approved capital bonds and federal dollars are included in the calculation.
“It’s very misleading, what they’ve put together there,” said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
Horne defended his proposal and the study, arguing the state is responsible to ensure all schools receive funds equally, regardless of where the tax dollars come from.
“My job is to maximize the educational benefit for the students,” he said.
In the 11 years since a change in state law opened the door for charters, Arizona has become a national model for the good and bad that school choice brings. Almost 500 charters now operate here, educating roughly 90,000 students — 10 percent of all public school students.
The charters are a mix of nonprofit and for-profit companies, with curriculums ranging from back-to-basics to performing arts.
Charters annually boast some of the top scores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
There have also been highly publicized failures, particularly in the first years when those opening charters enjoyed little oversight.
Some charters went bankrupt or folded due to gross mismanagement and fraud. The state Auditor General just two years ago condemned the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools for faulty oversight.
Now, Arizona’s laws better protect against misconduct and, overall, outside analysts and state officials say school choice has been successful.
A Tribune review of this year’s AIMS math and reading scores found that, on average, charters score marginally better than district schools.
Success has brought charters growth, but not enough funding to build facilities to meet their needs, said Tom Dorn, a lobbyist for the Arizona Charter School Association.
Districts can ask their taxpayers to approve bonds and budget overrides to pay for new buildings and renovations. Charter operators must rely on their yearly allotment from the state or take on debt.
“(Parents) don’t have choice if you don’t have adequate funding and quality in public charter schools,” Dorn said.
School choice proponents said they agree with that sentiment, but added that governments are supposed to see their costs drop when private businesses take over.
Part of charters’ appeal was their inability to levy property taxes to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in construction on top of regular education spending, said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. That is lost if the state hands the charters millions every year to make up the difference.
“We should adequately fund charters, but I do think there should be some recognition of the fact that when charters were created, part of the incentive was they were gonna save taxpayer money and be a better deal,” McCarthy said.
The local real estate market makes that unrealistic, Dorn said.
In 2005, Valley property values jumped as much as 50 percent, pricing out many first-time home buyers and small business owners.
The charters are entitled to millions more in funding to secure facilities and equipment that will allow them to compete with districts, Dorn said.
At the Tempe Preparatory Academy, Headmaster Ronald Bergez said his liberal arts high school’s facilities require some renovation.
But if the extra funding comes through, Bergez said he would have to put it into teacher salaries to keep his employees from moving to other schools with better pay.
The solution to charter schools’ funding woes, Bergez said, is for the state to allow the businesses to band together and seek voter approval to sell bonds. “It’d probably take a raft of attorneys to get it done,” he said.
Horne and Dorn argue the additional charter cash should come from the state’s General Fund, not a new tax.
Dorn characterizes it as a civil rights issue, with some public school students receiving less because they did not remain in district schools.
However, a number of poor and rural school districts have been unable to win voter-approval to sell bonds and therefore receive fewer dollars per student than charters.
While Dorn said that disparity is significant, correcting it is not his focus.
“That’s not my issue,” he said. “I don’t represent districts.”