Charter school funding key issue in Arizona budget brawl

State House, Senate at odds over spending

School buses wait at Kingman Middle School Tuesday afternoon. Education funding, and charter school funding in particular, is a contested subject in the Arizona Legislature. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

School buses wait at Kingman Middle School Tuesday afternoon. Education funding, and charter school funding in particular, is a contested subject in the Arizona Legislature. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

KINGMAN - School districts across the state could lose their ability to create charter schools, as well as $33 million in funding, according to the most recent state budget draft.

The $9.21 billion budget bill passed on a party-line vote early Tuesday afternoon. The House rejected it and Gov. Jan Brewer threatened to veto the budget after Senate President Andy Biggs made changes to the budget package, according to an Associated Press report.

The proposed funding cuts would impact two Mohave Valley Elementary schools specifically, according to Tracey Benson, communications director for the Arizona School Boards Association.

Mohave County School Superintendent Mike File said the total budget impact for both schools is right around $900,000.

The proposed funding rollbacks would impact 20 school districts with 58 district-sponsored chartered schools, Benson said.

"The reason for that is charter schools receive about a thousand dollars more per student than traditional district schools receive," said Benson. "So this $33 million is a reflection of that additional, per student funding that would be required for the students at these 58 affected schools."

Many school districts in the state sponsored the creation of charter schools to receive the additional funding, said Aaron Latham, director of communications for the Arizona State Senate Democratic Caucus.

"Our view is the Republicans have cut almost $3 billion from public school budgets since 2008, and (districts) found a creative way to find a little more funding to help educate Arizona kids," he said. "Republicans want to take that back. That's the issue this year."

About 30 additional schools were converted to charter schools prior to June 30, 2013, which the legislature previously drew as a retroactive funding cut-off point.

However, Benson said a House provision added to the budget late last week would allow those schools to continue to receive funding throughout 2015 before the rollback takes effect.

A financial penalty for converting back to a traditional school would also be waived, according to Benson.

"This issue is definitely in flux," she said.

Latham said more moderate Republicans decided to eliminate the rollback provision; however, that decision could still be reversed in coming days.

If the Legislature decides to include the rollback in the upcoming budget, public school districts such as Paradise Valley in Phoenix, which converted 11 schools into charters last year, could lose $11 million.

"It could happen," Latham said. "They're talking about it in appropriations."

While public charter schools appear to be on the chopping block, non-district sponsored charters such as Kingman Academy of Learning are far more secure.

"We have a state charter agreement, or contract between (the state) and the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools," said Susan Chan, district administrator of the Kingman Academy of Learning, adding that the board outlines what specific charter focus a school should have, such as art.

"We chose just to be a basic skills school with them."

Chan said the school's state charter agreement was recently reviewed and approved for another 20 years.

"I'm just waiting to see what they will do with the funding in general," said Chan.

Any changes made to the budget would need to be sent back to the House, and if approved and sent to Gov. Jan Brewer, she will have line-item veto power over changes made in appropriations, according to Latham.

Latham also said the proposed $33 million in charter schools cuts would go toward savings.