Educators want level playing field between charter and traditional schools

Charter schools and traditional public schools differ in many respects.

One difference of no small importance is teacher certification.

"Charters are a great idea when done correctly," said Mike File, Mohave County superintendent of schools.

"My idea of leveling the playing field is when public education has the task of hiring certified individuals that meet all of the requirements of the Arizona Department of Education's Certification Unit, as opposed to charter schools which can hire anyone off the streets.

That is where most of the discrepancies between the two begin."

"Charters, by their nature, are not supposed to refuse enrollment of children.

But because of class sizes they set, enrollment may be reached so they can deny admission and put the student on a waiting list."

File said traditional public schools must take in all students when they apply, whether classes swell to 33 students or 55.

Betty Rowe, director of the Kingman Academy of Learning, said her district hires only certified teachers.

That was put into the district charter when the KAL opened seven years ago.

But having the option of hiring certified or uncertified teachers is important to charter schools, according to Kristen Jordison, executive director of the state Board of Charter Schools.

"If someone has an idea or philosophy that may work well, the charter school concept allows parents to put it into practice," Jordison said.

"One example would be the Montessori curriculum.

It has been around for about 100 years and is attractive to some parents because it offers more self-directed learning."

Charter schools have an edge over traditional public schools when it comes to funding.

A charter district receives same-year funding based on per-pupil count.

Charter schools have no tax base, unlike traditional public schools that receive a portion of their funding from local property taxes.

"Districts are paid on prior year student count, but if attendance drops by more than 5 percent they don't take a full hit," Jordison said.

"On the other hand, if they have growth in the current year they're funded on the growth amount, so it is adjusted.

"Charters are only funded based on the number of students they teach.

If a charter school had 500 students last year, but only 250 this year they're only paid for 250, so there's no graduated funding scale."

Pat Dallabetta, regional director of NAU-Mohave, said the formula is a disparity that needs to be dealt with because it hurts the way in which traditional public schools operate.

"It makes planning difficult and to deal with unique situations in regular public schools," Dallabetta said.

"The state is now in a deficit spending situation, which affects all funding for public schools so they should deal with same-year funding."

File agreed that charter schools do better in the area of funding.

"Any time you have knowledge up front of money, you can budget and project much easier than if you rely on 100 days out and wonder if you're going to have the money to cover programs you've started," File said.

"This is another huge discrepancy between the two."

File said an education reform bill is under consideration in the state Legislature to implement the Arizona Learns program, and its passage would level the playing field between charter schools and traditional public schools.

It deals with accountability and procedures all schools would have to follow to be considered a passing school by the state Department of Education.

"If you're a failing school it says what could happen to your district," File said.

"The district could be taken over and possibly unified with another district.

"If you're a failing charter school, the end result is that your charter could be taken away."

Dallabetta said he appreciates good teachers, whether in regular public schools or charter schools.

He also recognizes that in order to survive financially charters operate under different rules.

But he added public schools must jump through more hoops than charter schools and that is not right.

"For the whole system to work, the rules must be the same," Dallabetta said.

"I am not against the concept of competition, but you can't compete by different rules."