Charter Pulse

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ARIZONA: More money for charter schools should mean higher expectations

florida-charter-schoolsFor four years, Arizona charter schools have been arguing in court that they get a raw deal from the Legislature.

Traditional school districts, they say, unfairly and unconstitutionally get more money per pupil than charter schools do.

Until now, the courts have said the funding difference is legal and have left the issue up to the Legislature, though there is an appeal of the issue in state courts. But what if the Legislature, traditionally supportive of charter schools, decides to accept the argument and moves to increase charter funding?

“Every year we’ve been telling the Legislature that charter students are being treated inequitably and that the (school-funding) system needs an overhaul,” Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, told me.

It’s an argument that affects us all financially, whether or not you have kids in a charter school, as I do. My family has embraced charters enough to contribute regular activity fees and other donations to our kids’ school that are a pervasive feature of the charter landscape — necessary, they say, due to limited state funding. Still, I don’t want more state money going into the charter system until we know better where it’s all going.

How much of a funding discrepancy really exists?

The basic level of state funding gives public-school districts $5,053 per pupil and charter schools $6,262 per pupil, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee reported in September. But that doesn’t count a variety of other sources — including local property taxes and bonding — that favor traditional school districts over charter schools. Counting those, the average Arizona school district got $8,992 per pupil, compared to $7,460 for charters.

Advocates of traditional district schools, such as Tucsonan Ann-Eve Pedersen, say the explanation of the district schools’ overall advantage in funding is simple.

“You don’t get the money, because you don’t provide the services,” she said of charter schools.

Those missing services, Pedersen argues, often include free or reduced-price meals, a transportation system and significant services for disabled students. All are commonly found at traditional district schools.

The way charter schools spend public money too often is hard to discern or simply questionable. The Arizona Republic revealed, in November 2012, a pattern of insider dealing within charter schools. Most charter schools receive exemptions from state procurement rules that district schools must follow, and many charters end up buying goods or services from people connected to the schools.

“Charters have a lot less restrictions on how they use the money,” said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

To an extent, that’s by design. Charter schools are meant to be liberated from the rules and regulations that entangle school districts, to see if the charters can do better. But it’s also an invitation to self-dealing that could be reigned in if the Legislature were to restrict the ability of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools to grant exemptions from procurement rules.

Perhaps the blackest hole in charter-school finance is the educational management organization. These entities can be for-profit and often argue they are not subject to public-records requests or other scrutiny, though they function on public money.

Basis Schools, the renowned groups of charter schools started in Tucson, now is operated by a for-profit educational management organization started by the founders of the schools, Olga and Michael Block. Basis.ed, as the company is called, takes in the public money for operating the schools but considers its own finances private.

As a result, information that would be easy to find for district schools — administrators’ or teachers’ salaries, how spending compares school-to-school — is obscured.

“We don’t have enough regulation in place in order to ensure accountability,” Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who studies educational management organizations, told me. “What often happens is once the contract is handed over to the private companies, there’s a veil of privacy.”

In essence, “it becomes a private school,” Miron said, but funded with public money.

Many people who work in Arizona charter schools see oversight as adequate, pointing out that every charter school must submit an independent audit each year. However, that’s a lower level of scrutiny than what’s received by traditional public-school districts, who also get a performance audit from the state Auditor General’s Office every year, Essigs said.

Some charter operators are aware of the need for transparency and try to maximize it.

Charlene Mendoza, who started teaching at a Tucson charter school in 1996, the early days of the movement, opened a new school last year, the Arizona College Prep Academy. She and her co-founders have talked about increasing the public’s access to financial and other information through a website that could track that data but have been too occupied with the startup to get to that.

“It’s a germ of an idea right now,” Mendoza said. “I think it’s a really important issue in terms of making people feel comfortable and confident with what happens in charter schools.”

Before the Legislature considers adjusting funding for charters, it should consider that a condition — increased transparency and accountability could bolster charter schools as well as protect the taxpayers’ money.

Source: Arizona Daily Star – by Tim Steller

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2013 by in Arizona, Charter Schools, State funding.

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