PHOENIX — A gubernatorial panel is crafting changes in how schools are funded in a way that, absent more money, is likely to create winners and losers.
And there is no new money in the plan.
Preliminary recommendations discussed Tuesday would equalize funding for all schools on a per-student basis. The idea, according to committee co-chairman Jim Swanson, is to minimize some of the differences between traditional public schools and charter schools.
But that equalization has major implications.
Charter schools get more state aid per pupil because they do not have access to local funds for things like voter-approved bonds and overrides. But the charters contend that still leaves them with less.
So that could mean boosting state aid to charters, taking away the ability of traditional public schools to get local money — or both — if the plan is to achieve the parity that Swanson said he and Gov. Doug Ducey want.
“We’re looking at an equitable funding system where every kid in our state has a chance of an excellent education no matter where they attend school,” said Swanson, the president and chief executive of Kitchell Corp.
But nothing in what the Classrooms First Initiative Council is proposing would be linked to the state providing additional dollars for education. And Swanson said that’s at the direction of Ducey.
“The governor, from the very first day I started doing this, has made it very clear that it’s not about the size of the pie, it’s about the pie,” he said.
Swanson said he told the governor there are “a lot of complex issues that involve money.” For example, there’s the question of how much additional state aid should go to schools that have to educate students with special needs.
But that, Swanson said, is not on the table.
“We’re trying to say, ‘how do we do this revenue-neutral,’” he said, without considering whether lawmakers and voters might approve Ducey’s plan to tap the principal of state trust lands for at least a quick cash infusion.
Swanson conceded that shifting resources with no net change in dollars means that what one school gains means less for someone else.
“We do not want to have a world where we take ‘haves’ and make them ‘have nots,’” he said.
Swanson said there may be ways to move money around.
For example, the state aid formula includes an equation designed to help boost funding in districts with more experienced teachers. Swanson said that money could be diverted. Yet one goal of the panel is to recruit and retain experienced teachers.
Differences between traditional and charter schools aside, the proposal also includes some other changes in how the state funds education.
For example, A-rated schools — those where students are excelling according to standardized tests — would be eligible for additional per-student funding. Ditto for those rated B or C if they showed marked improvement from the prior year.
But here, too, there are no additional dollars, which raises the question of whether the money would be taken away from other schools.
“Obviously we need to settle the lawsuit before we talk about the money,” said Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association.
A trial judge already has ruled the state owes public schools more than $330 million for failing to fully fund a voter-mandated formula to boost aid annually because of inflation. State lawmakers disagree and have appealed.
And there’s the separate question of whether schools are due more than $1 billion for prior years when the inflation formula was disregarded.
“There is no money for those kinds of purposes,” Ogle said. And even if there were, he questioned whether it makes educational sense.
“While it makes sense in the private sector to incentivize that type of thing, there’s really no research across the country that that’s an effective way to increase student achievement,” he said.
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, zeroed in on a proposal to have vacant or underused public schools made available quickly for charter schools that need more classrooms. Morrill said while charter schools are technically public schools, they can be operated as for-profit entities. More to the point, their assets belong to the charter operator and even can be sold off if no longer needed or the school goes out of business.
“How is that a reform?” Morrill asked. “It’s a money-laundering operation.”
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