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10:50 PM Sun, Nov. 18th

Lawsuit alleges school funding disparity: Claims state's financing formula favors district schools over charters

The debate between state funding for charter schools and district schools escalated recently when opening briefs were filed in a lawsuit that seeks to reform school finances in the state.

The Craven v. Huppenthal suit alleges discrimination against charter school students when it comes to financing public education, citing what the plaintiffs call a disparate financing scheme that favors district schools, which they say violates terms of the Arizona Constitution.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office, meanwhile, says charters should be treated differently when it comes to funding, citing the fact that charters are exempt from the Arizona Constitution, and that hiring, management, capital acquisitions procedures and school capacities differ.

While the lawsuit has no immediate impact on charters in Arizona, it could eventually force lawmakers to re-examine the issue of school funding formulas, something Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association (ACSA), said has not been done in decades.

"The last time we reformed school finance was in 1980. That's why you need a lawsuit," Sigmund said. "It needs to be the cattle prod to get action done."

Jennifer Liewer, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Education, a named party in the case, declined to comment.

The suit was originally filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2009, but those claims were later dismissed in 2013. The plaintiffs appealed that decision, however, and filed their opening briefs at the Maricopa County Appellate Court in November of last year. The Arizona Attorney General's Office, representing the state superintendent of schools, filed its answering brief Wednesday.

"Right now we're in the court briefing stage," Sigmund said. "The attorneys for the charter families involved are filing the initial briefs. The state is filing its response and then the families will get to reply. Then there will be oral arguments. Probably summer or fall we should have some kind of ruling. That's how long it takes. If one party is not happy with the decision, then it could go to the Supreme Court and then it can go to Legislature."

Sigmund said the Arizona Charter Schools Association supports the suit, but isn't in-volved in it.

"This is not just about disparities for our charter students; it also involved disparities for all our public students," Sigmund added. "In Prescott, the residents have not supported the bonds and overrides, so the districts are struggling without having any of the local source of revenue that other district students may enjoy."

While opening briefs at the court of appeals have been filed, there are no current legislative actions planned at the state level to change school funding policies.

"Right now there's nothing being pushed. There's no comprehensive solution. There's no political leadership saying 'This is the answer,'" Sigmund said. "We've identified the problem. It took two years of research to even realize how school funding works. It's not transparent and it's not easy."

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