With Arizona public schools struggling to raise students’ standardized test scores, the Legislature in 1994 began a grand experiment: charter schools.

They were exempted from state procurement or conflict-of-interest laws and the oversight of elected boards. With less regulation, charters could succeed where traditional public schools had failed, proponents argued.

Today, about 16 percent of Arizona students attend a charter school. And one of the state’s big chains, Basis, operates some of the best public schools in the country.

But not all charters are academic powerhouses, and some have turned into cash cows through multi-million-dollar business deals between charter schools and their founders. 

With funding for Arizona traditional public schools ranking near the bottom nationally, charter school critics say the state can ill afford to let profiteers line their pockets with funds that should go to the classroom. Some argue charters should have to be as transparent about their spending as traditional public schools.

This series examines the finances of some of Arizona’s most prominent charter schools to reveal how they spend the tax dollars they receive, who profits from the operations and what those deals mean for the future of education.

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Charter schools have become more popular in recent years. Reporter Craig Harris talks about investigating Arizona’s charter schools.
Arizona Republic

? BASIS SCHOOLS seeks big donations to pay its teachers: There are 20 Basis schools in Arizona with more than 900 teachers. They all are part of Basis Charter Schools, a tax-exempt non-profit corporation.

But none of the teachers actually works for Basis Schools.

Long before the groundswell of demands for higher teacher pay in Arizona, the high-profile charter school found a novel way to boost teachers’ income: push parents to pay.

? AMERICAN LEADERSHIP ACADEMY founder makes millions on schoolsAmerican Leadership Academy has grown to a dozen campuses with more than 8,000 students in Florence, Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek and San Tan Valley.

Because of Arizona’s light regulations for charter schools, the school’s founder has made about $37 million on real estate deals associated with the schools — though he disputes the figure. The taxpayer money was allocated to the businessman’s charter schools and then awarded to his companies through no-bid contracts. 

Related: Charter gives teachers raise; refuses to let public comment on budget


Deals at American Leadership Academy yielded $18 million in profits to the founder’s businesses. A lot of that money comes from Arizona taxpayers.
William Flannigan, azcentral

? PRIMAVERA online charter school CEO takes $8.8 million payout from for-profit charter company: By most academic measures, Primavera online charter school is a failure. Its student-to-teacher ratio is 215-to-1 — 12 times the state average — allowing little or no individualized attention.

On recently released state standardized tests, less than a quarter of its students passed math and about a third passed English, both below the state average. And 49 percent of Primavera students end up dropping out, 10 times the state average.

But by another measure, Primavera is an unmitigated success: making money.

? Glendale charter school drops student because of his disability, mom alleges: Heritage Elementary again is facing controversy after a mom claims her special needs, 6-year-old was kicked out.

? ‘A serious error’: Charter official will return cash from insider deal: The Arizona Charter Schools Association will force its No. 2 executive to return cash from an insider deal after a Republic investigation.


Heritage Elementary, a Glendale charter school, reversed its decision to not give 20 teachers their earned merit pay during a board meeting today.
Arizona Republic

? Teachers accuse principal, vice principal of sexual harassment: Top school execs at Heritage, a Glendale charter, are accused of sexual harassment; staff say principal put pics of ex-teachers in office shower.

? Charter enrollment policies changed after report finds ‘illegal’ practices: An ACLU report exposing “illegal or exclusionary” enrollment practices in Arizona has forced documentation and policy changes at nearly 100 charter schools.

FUNDING:  Arizona school funding: How it works

FAILURES AND SUCCESSES:  A history of Arizona education funding ideas

FINANCES:  1 in 4 charters show significant financial red flags

PERFORMANCE:  Are charter students outperforming the state average?


Charter school enrollment is growing in Arizona, but what’s the difference between a charter and your neighborhood district school? azcentral.com

EDITORIAL BOARD: How the double standard on charter school finances cheats you

AMERICAN LEADERHIP ACADEMY: We’re not the villain in this charter-school war

ALLHANDS: Basis schools aren’t the only ones asking parents to pony up

ROBERTS: Rent increase could force one of central Phoenix’s best schools to close

MONTINI: Meanwhile … more Arizona charter school scandals were exposed

ALLHANDS: Do charter schools cherry pick students? AzMERIT data says no

ROBERTS: Why are charter schools paying a bounty (with public funds) for students?


Education funding has been a hot-button topic in Arizona since the Great Recession. Here is what you should know before the 2018 midterm election.
William Flannigan, azcentral


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