Guest Opinion – Calvin Baker, superintendent, Vail School District
(This guest opinion article first appeared in the Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 18, 2013).
The recent article (“Charter schools seek fund hike,” Dec. 2) regarding charter schools asking for $135 million in additional funding missed the mark. It told only half the truth.
The article presented arguments regarding the financial advantages available to district schools while ignoring the significant financial advantages enjoyed by charters.
The whole truth is that Arizona’s school-finance system provides different and distinct advantages to both district schools and state-sponsored charter schools.
Under the law, the state gives charter schools about $1,000 more per student than it does to school districts.
In addition, due to a quirk in the law, state-sponsored (not district-sponsored) charters are also able to obtain “small school funding.” These funds provide up to an additional $800 per student.
Providing state-sponsored charter schools with this funding is a $56 million annual hit to the state’s stressed general fund. Taxpayers receive no benefit for this additional cost.
Do the math: $1,000 + $800 = $1,800 per student of additional funding for state-sponsored charter school students. In other words, a classroom of 30 students in a state-sponsored charter can generate as much as $54,000 more than a similar classroom in a district school.
Take, for example, the well-run, successful and financially struggling Altar Valley School District on the west edge of Tucson. Its low property wealth makes it essentially impossible to obtain voter approval for an override. The cost per taxpayer is simply too high. If Altar Valley’s two schools were a state-sponsored charter system, they would automatically receive more than $1 million in additional revenue — almost three times the amount their recently failed override would have generated.
Some of the most highly acclaimed state-sponsored charters also enjoy a large financial benefit due to the fact that they somehow have no special-education students. The actual cost of providing legally required and expensive services to special-education students is significantly higher than the additional revenue those students generate. District schools subsidize the cost of special education with money from their “regular” education programs.
Charters that serve very few or no special-education students escape this expense and thus have more money to spend on their regular education programs.
District schools do have the advantage of access to bond money to purchase land and facilities — if they can manage to pass a bond election. State-sponsored charters look to the many grant sources promoting charters (i.e., federal government, Gates Foundation, Walton Foundation, etc.) or their own financing for land and facilities.
The absolutely critical difference, however, is that district facilities belong to the local taxpayers who paid for them. Owners of state-sponsored charter schools retain full property rights to their facilities. If they quit charter-school operations, they keep the facilities taxpayers helped to fund. Conversely, if a district converts one of its schools to a charter and decides to quit the charter, local taxpayers must return all of the additional charter funding the district received.
Again, the whole truth: Both district schools and state-sponsored charter schools have their own financial advantages.
The far more important truth is we are wasting time arguing about those differences between charters and district schools. In fact, we are putting education at risk as the Legislature has a history of equalizing perceived funding differences by taking money away.
The important truth is that funding for both district schools and charter schools is shamefully inadequate. Both charter schools and district schools are struggling. Our education funding is at a level among the very worst in the nation. It is a funding level that cheats our children, our future and our economic development.
It is time to let go of what divides us and focus on what unites us. It is time for supporters of both district schools and charter schools to work together to address the embarrassingly low level of funding for education in Arizona.
Calvin Baker has been superintendent of the Vail School District for 25 years. The district operates 18 schools, seven of which are district-sponsored charter schools.