Arizona has seen an unprecedented surge in school districts wanting to convert some of their schools to charters, raising concerns over whether districts are unfairly using the law just to generate more money.
Charter school officials wonder if district-run charters can provide the same type of education as their schools, which usually offer specialized curricula and school choice tailored to parents and students.
By the end of last month, districts throughout the state had submitted 60 applications to convert traditional schools or build new charters, including five in the Tucson area, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
That's a drastic increase from 2012-13, when only four schools, all in the Cave Creek Unified School District, were converted to charters. The year before, only two schools in the Vail School District were converted.
Vail submitted paperwork last month to convert three more schools: Desert Willow Elementary School and Old Vail and Rincon Vista middle schools.
The Tanque Verde Unified School District wants to convert Tanque Verde Elementary School, while the Tucson Unified School District submitted paperwork to reopen Richey Elementary School as a charter preschool. The school was closed in 2010.
Conversions statewide are expected to cost the state an extra $3.3 million for the coming school year. The number is expected to jump to $36.4 million next year, when the districts start receiving full funding for charter school students.
A June 3 Joint Legislative Budget Committee memo suggests districts might be rushing to convert schools in order to cash in before the Legislature changes the law.
Lawmakers considered clamping down this year, but a one-year moratorium that would have halted district charter conversions was removed before the final budget was approved.
Although the increase has sparked a debate about districts using a loophole to get more money, both charter advocates and school district administrators say their schools suffer from a broken system that inadequately funds education.
"The biggest concern is a broken school finance system, and it needs to be fixed so students are treated equitably," said Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
Charter schools receive about $1,000 a year more in base support per student from the state than traditional schools.
However, traditional public schools receive about $1,500 more per student than charters when money for building renewal, transportation and other items are accounted for, according to a 2011 report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
School districts can also receive extra money from property tax overrides and bond elections, while charters are not allowed to ask voters for funds.
Charter school officials say the funding discrepancy is a disadvantage for their schools because district-operated charters can receive the extra base support money, in addition to the other funds allocated to school districts.
"If we run out of money, we have no opportunity to go to bond voters and ask them for anything," said Charlene Mendoza, founder and principal of Arizona College Prep Academy, a charter high school in Tucson. "I think it's a tremendous disadvantage."
Districts have faced cuts
School district officials counter by saying districts have experienced deep budget cuts within the last few years, especially money for building renewal and supplies such as computers and textbooks.
The Vail School District has seen a more than 21 percent decrease in per-student funding in the last four years, said Superin-tendent Calvin Baker. It has gotten nothing for building renewal in three years, and has seen major cuts to soft capital, maintenance and operations budget.
"We're unable to give any salary increases this year. Our teachers and principals perform at a very high level, and we're unable to reward the staff for their accomplishments," he said.
While Tanque Verde has seen similar cuts, it has seen some gains with student growth. However, the district expects to reach its capacity, which means it will stop receiving money for sudden growth, said Tanque Verde Superintendent Doug Price.
Price doesn't view the law allowing districts to convert traditional schools to charters as a loophole, but rather an opportunity to enhance educational programs within the district.
"It's an incentive the Legisla-ture put in the law. We're trying to maintain our place in the market to fully fund our programs," he said.
Charter school officials are not just concerned by the funding differences between regular charters and district-operated schools.
They wonder if school districts are willing to replicate the specialized curricula of charter schools while meeting the needs of parents and students who desire school choice.
Some districts with charters already offer similar curricula and are open to any student in the district.
There are about 535 charter schools in Arizona, many focusing on specific areas like science, math, sports or vocational trades.
Some of the schools offer stringent academics, while others reach out to at-risk students to prepare them for graduation.
It's important for school districts to understand the expectations and standards that come with operating a charter school, said Sigmund, the charter schools association president.
"The reason we have charters is to improve student achievement and provide parents a choice," she said. "A charter is a contract to improve student achievement."
Charter school operators have to go through an extensive process that includes an application that details the population the school will serve. Charters also have to provide a research-based curriculum.
"It is a really specific undertaking. It's not as easy as going to the state board and saying 'I want to open a school,'" said Mendoza, principal of Arizona College Prep Academy.
Vail had four charters before this fiscal year, with all of them providing a specialized curriculum or service.
Civano Community School places an emphasis on project-based, environmentally focused learning, while Vail Academy and High School focuses on stringent academics and small class sizes for kindergarten through 12th- grade students.
The district's two other charter schools, Mesquite and Acacia elementary schools, provide all-day kindergarten, Baker said.
When a school is converted to a charter, its principal and site council have the freedom to decide how to spend the extra money, he said.
"Because of charters, we are able to do things with students that we wouldn't be able to do in traditional schools," he said.
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"The reason we have charters is to improve student achievement and provide parents a choice."
Charter Schools Association
Contact reporter Jamar Younger at email@example.com or 573-4242. On Twitter: @JamarYounger