School Districts Sponsoring New Charter Schools Face Budget Challenges

April 21, 2014

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
The Maricopa Wells Middle School is one of the six MUSD schools converted to charter this school year.

Several Arizona public school districts are back to square one. Gov. Jan Brewer signed a budget that included a proposal forbidding school districts from converting its schools to charter — and ultimately collecting more state funds.

The seventh grade class at Maricopa Wells Middle School is discussing George Orwell’s novel "Animal Farm." It’s usually an assigned high school reading, but in Treva Jenkins' class the goal is to read several classic novels before the students leave middle school.

Maricopa Wells is one of six schools in the Maricopa Unified School District converted to charter. The conversions helped MUSD lock in $2.6 million dollars this school year for incoming new students, and another $3.6 million next year for all its students. The money would fund its STEM, Technology, Leadership and Fine Arts programs. But the new state budget put a moratorium on new district-sponsored charter schools.

“It takes money to run the distinctive academic programs which is what it comes down to,” said MUSD Superintendent Steve Chestnut, the force behind converting six of his nine traditional public schools into charters.

“So these funds have been really allowing us to plan for that next year, but we’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board now that next year will be the last year,” he said.

The state budget calls for those public school districts that converted 59 schools to charter this school year to receive 75 percent of the estimated total amount for the coming school year —that’s about a $900,000 cut for MUSD. And by the third year these schools will no longer receive the money and their charter designation will be eliminated.

The proposal was a response to charter school supporters who argued public schools districts were draining general funds by converting their schools.

“We primarily did it for academic reasons. We’re very clear that we have to be competitive, but you can’t ignore the fact that we receive additional funding," Chestnut said.

Here is how it works—the state gives school districts an estimated $4,400 for each enrolled student. Since 1994 the state has given an estimated $1,000 more per student to charter schools because they don’t have access to the local taxpayers for additional revenue.  Those extra dollars are to assure charters stay competitive with public schools.

“It’s the loophole in the law that needs to be fixed,” said Jonathan Butcher, the education director for the Goldwater Institute. "I think that funding issue is what needs to be addressed because the general fund can’t sustain it. It’s just not built to hold a funding level like that.”

Butcher is referring to the fact the law allows for charter schools to be sponsored by public school districts, among other education entities. And when their schools convert, the district benefits from the additional $1,000 per student.

He says that’s a problem because more and more public school districts are changing their schools to charter and benefiting from the additional $1,000 per student.

“If schools want to convert to a charter school to do something innovative that’s great and we should encourage that. But it shouldn’t be just to get additional funding,” he said.

Chestnut doesn’t deny the district’s failed attempts to pass five overrides since 2009. He admits the district has had to refocus and find ways to increase its funding.  But he says converting his schools was about creating and maintaining programs that make the schools different.  

“So we know that we have to have quality programs in all of our schools to keep Maricopa students here and so, we saw a district-sponsored charter schools as really a way to make that happen. To really to be competitive we need additional funding, it really is that simple," Chestnut said.

There are six Arizona school districts that sponsored charter schools before the 2013-14 school year. Those districts are not affected by the budget changes, although their growth will  be limited. MUSD is back to where it started.  The district is now considering putting another override on the November 2014 ballot.