Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say

Part 108 of 107 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Charter school proponents are split over whether a new law would help or hurt charter schools in Arizona.

After dozens of traditional district schools converted to charter schools in one year, putting a cramp on the state’s education budget, a new state law no longer allows those conversions. Converted schools must revert to district schools or be authorized by a different sponsor.

CHARTER FUNDING: Almost 60 district schools in Arizona converted to charter schools — many say it was for money. Do they need it?

Many have said the school districts had the schools converted to receive more money. Charter schools, funded entirely by the state, receive more state money than district schools, but district schools can levy local dollars as well and typically bring in more money per student than charter schools.

A charter school in a district has access to the higher amount of state money and the additional local money.

“The bottom line is you saw so many schools converting to charter…because school finance is broken, and this is the way for additional dollars to flow to students,” said Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “That’s really the impetus that we need to move forward and fix. This is a symptom and not the solution.”

The association advocates for multiple charter school sponsors — that is, allowing the state, local districts and other entities to authorize charter schools.

“Cutting off one of the sponsors is not what we had wanted to see,” she said.

The financial situation needs “a thoughtful approach of how you allow students basic access to funds and not bankrupt the state,” Sigmund said.

Other charter school proponents applauded the move, saying the converted charter schools were only charters in name.

“They were converting to a charter school and changing their paperwork, but I don’t think they were adopting a new mission,” said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute. “They obviously weren’t getting a new board or anything like that. They were just saying, ‘Oh, now we’re a charter school.’”

Districts can be good charter school authorizers, and they are in some states, Butcher said, but they’re often not set up to run the schools.

“It’s highly suspicious when suddenly districts are making their schools ‘schools of choice’ when there’s a loophole in the law to give them more money and no more accountability,” he said. “It looks like not a legitimate attempt at school choice.”

School districts should be able to authorize charter schools, but the state made a reasonable move, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“In an ideal world, we think it’s preferable to allow existing traditional public schools to be able to convert to charter status, but there’s always exceptions to the rule, and this is probably one of them,” he said.

“It’s preferable to allow existing district schools to convert to charters, when here, districts were strictly doing it to get a higher per-pupil amount and weren’t entering into a performance-based contract with the schools and weren’t making them true charter schools in terms of giving schools flexibility to innovate and holding them to a higher level of accountability. It seemed just a show for getting more dollars.”

Ziebarth said once the funding system is fixed and the right financial incentives are put in place, districts should be allowed to authorize charter schools.

“Take away the financial incentives for districts to do it for the wrong reason, and if they do it, they’re doing it to get the advantage of chartering,” he said. “They’d be getting the same dollar amount whether they’re traditional schools or charter schools.”

Regardless of what kinds of schools these charter schools were, the state needs to find a better solution, Sigmund said.

“Some may have just said they were charter in name only; some may have embraced a completely different format. I can’t give a blanket statement for 59 schools. Basically, it’s public education and you’re going to see innovation in different ways,” she said. “This is a Band-Aid solution for a much larger problem. That pretty much sums it up.”

Senate President Andy Biggs and Rep. Heather Carter, Arizona lawmakers who were outspoken about the decision, didn’t return calls for comment.

Paradise Valley and Dysart school districts didn’t return calls for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at