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Charter school enrollment is growing in Arizona, but what’s the difference between a charter and your neighborhood district school? azcentral.com
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If you follow the education debate in Arizona, you’ve heard conflicting claims about who, between charter and traditional public school operators, gets shorted on taxpayer funding.

Charter school advocates have long claimed they operate with fewer tax dollars.

Traditional public school advocates say the exact opposite — that they receive less public money than charters. 

Who’s right?

The Arizona Legislature, which authorized charter schools in 1994, gives them up to $2,000 more per student in “equalization dollars” than traditional schools.

When public school supporters say charter schools get more tax money, they’re referring to this state equalization funding.

The reasoning behind the bigger per-pupil payout for charters is they cannot seek operating or building funds through local elections the way district schools frequently do via bonds and overrides. 

District schools, meanwhile, typically receive more federal funding than charter schools because they serve more special-needs and low-income children, and they offer the national free and reduced-lunch program, state budget records show. 

When charter school supporters say traditional public schools get more tax money, they’re referring to their typically larger share of these federal and local tax dollars.

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How does it add up?

In fiscal 2017, charter schools on average received $6,748 per student from the state general fund, while district schools received $5,389, according to the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

When all funds — local, state and federal — were counted, district schools received on average $9,474 per student. Charter schools, meanwhile, received $8,523 per student.

But it’s more complicated than just those numbers.

RELATED: Failures and successes: A history of Arizona education funding ideas

The Legislature’s additional per-student funding for charter schools has given them a disproportionate share of state education dollars, state records show. About 1.1 million Arizona kids attend state-funded district and charter schools.

Charter schools in 2016-17 taught 16 percent of those Arizona students — 179,669 — while receiving 27 percent of state education dollars. 

Twenty years ago, charter schools taught 2 percent of students and received 3.2 percent of state education dollars.

Much of this disparitycan be traced to the Great Recession, when lawmakers cut funding for capital expenses, textbooks and buses for traditional public schools, but gave annual cost-of-living adjustments to charter operators, said Anabel Aportela, research director for the Arizona School Boards Association.

“District schools start out at a significant disadvantage in terms of the (funding) formula,” said Aportela, who has a doctorate in school finance and spent four years as the Arizona Charter Schools Association’s research director. “As charter enrollment continues to grow, it will take a larger and larger share of all state revenues.”

Since the recession, as charter schools were getting more funding, their enrollment exploded by 81 percent, while enrollment in traditional public schools fell by 2.7 percent, state records show.

Charter school advocates say parents have voted with their feet, switching their students from traditional schools to charters. District schools counter by saying chronic under-funding has left them less equipped to serve students.

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Follow Brian Jones, the head of school for BASIS Phoenix South Primary, as he tours a new school in the BASIS charter school family. Innovative techniques and the results the schools achieve are some of the best in Arizona. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com

Charters spend less in the classroom 

As charter school operators have received more state per-pupil funding, a smaller share of that money reached the classrooms compared with traditional public schools.

Charter schools spend roughly double what districts do on administration, and some charter operators profit off large management fees and no-bid deals to furnish IT services or the facilities themselves, The Arizona Republic has found.

Charter school teachers, on average, were paid $41,066 in 2016-17, state Education Department records show. That’s $7,306 less than the amount paid to traditional public school teachers, who have been among the worst compensated in the nation, with an average annual salary of $48,372.

Basis Charter Schools Inc., a prominent charter chain, asks parents to donate $1,500 per child to subsidize its teachers’ pay.

Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature provided significant increases to education funding this year, enough for all public schools — charters and traditional public schools alike — to give 20 percent raises to teachers by 2020. 

The Governor’s Office says dozens of public school districts are giving teachers pay raises of 10 percent or more when school begins in late summer. 

The Arizona Charter Schools Association has not said what its member schools plan to give their teachers. Some charters have told The Republic they will be giving raises of 7 percent to more than 10 percent.

Federal, local, other funding sources

The charter association blames a disparity in funding on Arizona’s system of school finance.

“All children in public schools should receive an excellent education backed by similar resources,” the association states on its website, advocating for more funding. “Due to geography or school choice, some students should not be treated as worth less than other students.”

District schools that received more money than charters, do so primarily because of federal funds provided for special needs students, low-income students and lunch programs, which averaged $1,829 per student. 

“The fact that district schools get more federal dollars is reflected in the fact that they have more students in poverty and special education,” Aportela said.

If that funding were removed, charter schools would receive more in per-pupil funding.

Charters are prohibited from discriminating against low-income and special needs students. But Aportela said that doesn’t mean charter operators can’t make it difficult for parents to enroll special-needs students.

“If you don’t build a special-education program, you are not going to attract special-education students.” Aportela said. “You don’t turn kids away. You just don’t build something for them.”

An American Civil Liberties Union charter-school report last year found “illegal or exclusionary” enrollment practices in Arizona that recently forced documentation and policy changes at nearly 100 charter schools in the state.

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools — which works to ensure the publicly funded schools comply with the law and their charter contracts — revised its review and advisory processes to prevent enrollment violations.

Executive Director Ashley Berg said 97 percent of the schools the ACLU claimed were not in compliance have been deemed compliant by the board. The remaining schools  “continue to work with Board staff to ensure their enrollment documents and policies adhere to the law,” Berg said.

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Craig Harris, a senior reporter for azcentral.com, examines BASIS Phoenix South Primary, a new charter school, and tries to find out how taxpayer
dollars are being spent at the successful chain of charter schools. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com

Local funds, but no guarantee

School districts can ask local voters for additional money, an option charter schools lack. But there is no guarantee local taxpayers will support it.

About 20 percent of the state’s 217 school districts have not passed a local school funding election since 2007, Aportela said. And those that have are overwhelmingly concentrated in Maricopa County — about 85 percent of maintenance and operation-override money.

Charter advocates say district schools have another funding advantage to build classrooms by tapping the state School Facilities Board, which does not give money to charter schools.

The School Facilities Board provides an average of $56 per district student, less than 1 percent of total education funding dollars. 

Republic reporter Maria Polletta contributed.

ABOUT THIS REPORT: Throughout 2018, investigative reporter Craig Harris examines the finances of some of Arizona’s most prominent charter schools to reveal how they spend the tax dollars they receive, who profits off the operations, and what those deals mean for the future of education.

Reach the reporter at craig.harris@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8478 or on Twitter @charrisazrep.

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