PHOENIX — Nearly a year after getting $24 million from the Legislature, Gov. Doug Ducey is finally putting the finishing touches on a plan that could put more state dollars into privately run and owned charter schools.
Ducey is still not ready to provide details on how he intends to fulfill his promise he would use the money to abolish the “wait lists” for spots at high-performing schools, his spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said Wednesday.
But Scarpinato said Ducey remains committed to provide more dollars to schools that find themselves with more applicants than spaces available.
Scarpinato said that includes both traditional public schools as well as charter schools. That’s because Arizona is an “open enrollment” state, allowing students to attend any public school they want.
But state law already requires the state to build new public schools as needed, though legislators have not fully funded that account for years. The fallback for many schools has been to seek voter approval for bonds to construct new buildings.
Charter schools, however, which are privately run — and even can be for-profit operations — receive no money from the state for construction despite their official status as public schools. Nor can they seek voter approval to borrow money, but instead must survive on what the state provides in per-student funding.
ducey’s full attention
That raises questions of whether what Ducey will finally unveil next month will largely benefit charter operators.
When he unveiled the plan in January, the governor said he wants “expansion and replication of top-performing schools” that are at capacity and have waiting lists “through targeted financial support.”
“This is looking at, ‘How do we give the best public schools access to capital to expand so that families and kids wanting to get into those exceptional schools can?” Scarpinato said Wednesday.
Scarpinato said work on the plan slowed while the governor helped craft a deal to end a lawsuit over more funding for classrooms. That ended with a plan to put a proposal on the May 17 ballot to tap trust-fund proceeds to come up with an additional $3.5 billion over the next decade.
Now, he said, the governor can devote attention to the capital side of the equation and ensuring that schools have access to cash for new buildings.
But for charter schools, the question becomes finding a legal way to do that.
One hurdle is the “Gift Clause” of the Arizona Constitution which prohibits any donation, grant, subsidy to individuals, associations or corporations. It even bars the state from lending money to such groups.
That would appear to bar direct funding for capital needs or even providing zero- or low-interest loans to charter operators.
That is different than the state paying schools to educate children on what amounts to a pay-as-you-go basis.
Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said this is more than a legal problem.
He said when taxpayers provide money for new public schools, those buildings are public property — and remain that way “in perpetuity.”
“If it’s private ownership, it may be there for five years, may be there for two years, may be there for 10 years,” Essigs said. Put another way, a charter school could go out of business while retaining the taxpayer-funded building.
He said if charter operators need money, they should pursue a “private solution.”
State schools chief Diane Douglas had similar concerns about not just capital funding but the state funds now going to charter operators. She said that, unlike officials at traditional public schools, they do not report to a locally elected school board.
“We have charter schools that are using taxpayer money with no elected oversight,” Douglas said. “That’s a concern to me.”
Scarpinato insisted the constitution will not be an issue, but he refused to provide specifics.
“I think when you see the full plan, it’ll address that,” he said. “But we’ll have more on that in the new year.”
Douglas also said no one from the governor’s office has called her to consult about his plans.
The governor’s office had no official response.
The relationship between the two elected officials has been chilly at best since February, when Douglas accused Ducey of having the goal of “moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.”