PHOENIX — Attorneys for the state schools chief are defending the decision by lawmakers to provide more per-pupil aid to traditional public schools than to charter schools.
Assistant Attorney General Kevin Ray asked the Court of Appeals on Wednesday to rebuff a demand for an extra $1,100 annually per student by charter schools, which contend the disparity is unconstitutional.
Ray, representing School Superintendent John Huppenthal and the Legislature, did not dispute the funding disparity, but told the judges in legal filings the difference is justified because public schools have to live with restrictions that do not apply to charter schools.
If the appellate court does not agree, lawmakers would be forced to boost aid to them by $135 million a year, money that might be taken from other programs.
Charter schools are public schools under Arizona law, designed to provide an alternative to traditional district-based public schools, and are eligible for state aid. But rather than being a level of government, they can be operated by private and even for-profit organizations.
Cory Langhofer, representing the charter schools, said they are public schools, making any funding differences improper and illegal.
Potentially the most significant difference between the two, which could affect the ruling, is public schools must serve every eligible student who wants to attend and must offer every grade. No district resident can be turned away.
“Charter schools, however, may decide how many students they want to accommodate, and then limit enrollment in accordance with that capacity,’’ Ray wrote. He said they can also limit the number of grades offered and provide a specialized curriculum.
Further, Ray said, school districts can hire only individuals with teaching certificates and have to follow certain legal procedures in employing and firing them.
He also pointed out charter schools actually own their facilities, even if they used tax dollars to purchase them, so the owners can shut down and dispose of the property as they want and pocket the proceeds. Over a five-year period, 111 charter schools did close down, he said.
School districts, however, are effectively permanent, Ray said.
Langhofer said this isn’t simply a question of state aid. Traditional schools can supplement their funds with voter-approved bonds and budget overrides.
But Ray countered that charter schools have access to funds not available to traditional public schools: low-interest loans through industrial development authorities and federal grants — the U.S. Department of Education has awarded more than $52 million to Arizona charter schools.
He also pointed out Arizona law allows allows charter schools up to $200,000 from Arizona taxpayers for start-up costs and costs associated with renovating or remodeling structures.
Last year, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama sided with the state, saying he found nothing legally wrong with the disparity. “Because charter and district schools are different, the Legislature may fund them differently,’’ the judge wrote.