PHOENIX — The state’s charter schools are demanding more money from taxpayers, to the tune of $135 million a year.
Attorney Kory Langhofer said lawmakers are not living up to their obligation to treat all public schools equally, pointing out that charter schools, even those run by private for-profit entities, are considered public schools under Arizona law.
But Langhofer said they do not have the same access to funds.
The result, he said, is charter schools get at least $1,100 less per student than traditional public schools. Langhofer wants the state Court of Appeals to rule that disparity is unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama said he found nothing legally wrong with the disparity. “Because charter and district schools are different, the Legislature may fund them differently,” he wrote.
Langhofer contends Gama used the wrong legal standard to justify the disparity.
The bid for more funding is getting a fight, not only from the state Department of Education, but also the Arizona School Boards Association. That group’s attorney, Don Peters, said lawmakers are doing nothing wrong.
The idea behind charter schools was to create an alternative for parents. Like public schools, they cannot charge tuition. And, generally speaking, they cannot pick and choose which students they will accept.
But they also are not subject to many of the same regulations as traditional schools, ranging from the training and qualification of teachers to having to provide lunch facilities. And in Arizona, unlike many other states, they can be operated as for-profit entities by private organizations.
At the state level, basic state aid per pupil is nearly identical.
Traditional districts, however, receive additional aid to operate their legally required school buses, based on the miles of school bus routes. They also get separate funding for things like books and computers, though charter schools also get additional aid.
Langhofer said that’s the main focus of the lawsuit.
But the biggest difference is traditional schools can supplement their funds with voter-approved bonds and budget overrides, tapping local taxpayers. Langhofer said that’s not fair.
“If you live in District 1 and you send your children to a charter school, when District 1 passes a school bond, the money you pay in taxes for that school bond don’t benefit your child at all,” he said.
“The logic of it should be — or certainly could be — that if you live in a district and you’re paying a school bond, your children, whether they go to charter or district school, should get a slice of that.”
That leads to some fairly complex legal arguments Langhofer hopes to get the Court of Appeals to accept, arguments Gama dismissed.
One is his contention that separate funding schemes for the two types of public schools is discriminatory because it interferes with charter students’ fundamental right to an education, based on constitutional requirements for equal protection of individuals under the law.
Peters said that does not apply here.
“The students have rights to an education,’’ he said. “They don’t have rights to have a particular institution funded in a particular way.”
Anyway, Peters said, the rights of every school-age child in Arizona are already equal.
“They can all choose a charter school. They can all go to a district school,” he said. Peters said parents of charter school students made that choice, and now are complaining about how those institutions are financed.
Langhofer said the fact that there is no evidence the current funding scheme for charter schools leads to an inadequate education is irrelevant.
“The proper question is whether they have an equal starting point,” he said.
And Langhofer said it was the Legislature itself that decided to allow charter schools — and, more to the point, to designate them as public schools.
“The charter schools are supposed to be an alternative to district schools, and not just an alternative that exists as an idea but an alternative that will improve on the state of education in Arizona,” he said.
Peters said one reason for the funding disparity is that the state provides capital funding for new buildings for traditional schools because they are political subdivisions of the state.
“Charter schools, by contrast, go out of business with regularity,” he said, citing figures from the Department of Education that more than 100 charter schools have stopped operating in recent years.
“The Legislature might rationally be reluctant to invest millions of dollars in facilities for charter schools when those schools may discontinue operations at any time,” he said.
Peters said there also are different obligations, ranging from having facilities for food service to providing programs for preschoolers with disabilities. And he said there are “extensive regulations” that take time and money, regulations that do not apply to charter schools.