What students get, and what they don't, in charter schools
Who can operate a charter school, and how those schools operate, continues to evolve.
Offerings at charter schools, such as athletics and lunch programs, can be different in each school. Teaching requirements, which doesn't always include state certification, can vary in charter schools as well.
The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, a state-run agency, contracts with corporations, nonprofit and for-profit entities, as well as school districts, to start charter schools. The board has the power to revoke contracts and grant permission to charter schools. An 11-member board runs the agency, of which the governor appoints 10 members. The state superintendent of schools, or an appointed representative, serves as the 11th member, said Deanna Rowe, executive director for the Arizona Board for Charter Schools. Currently, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools oversees more than 520 charter schools in the state.
"We have oversight responsibility for the schools we authorize," Rowe said. "Those schools have reporting requirements, not only to the Department of Education, but also to the state Board for Charter Schools."
While the state Board for Charter Schools is the primary authorizing entity for schools in Arizona, universities also have permission to authorize charter schools. Community colleges, within specific statutes, as well as school districts, also can authorize, which makes them responsible for overseeing the school, Rowe said.
"A number of schools this year, across the state, actually converted some of their existing schools into charter schools," Rowe said.
Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter said two districts in the county oversee charter schools: the Humboldt Unified School District and the Cottonwood Oak Creek School District. Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy, once part of the Prescott Unified School District but now an independent charter, graduated its first class of seniors in 2010.
"Basically the process is outlined in statute that allows a local district governing board to apply to establish a district-sponsored charter school," Carter said.
Statutory direction on how those charters are operated, however, is unclear, he said. The county school superintendent's office, with the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents, have subsequently asked the county attorney and the auditor general for guidance on the matter.
"In effect, do we treat them like districts, like charters, or like a hybrid of some sort? We are expecting those opinions any day now," Carter said.
Charter and district school differences
The differences between charters and district schools, Rowe said, varies from school to school:
District schools are required to provide transportation, for example, while charter schools are not, Rowe said.
"It gets very complicated very quickly when we talk about charter school funding versus district school funding, but there is a funding mechanism for district schools to account for transportation miles and receive funding for providing transportation," Rowe explained.
Charter schools also are not required to participate in a hot lunch program, though some do.
"It depends upon the school, and it's part of the choices a charter school has in its operations, and a choice parents have in selecting any school." Rowe said. "If I need transportation, then I probably want to enroll my child in a school that provides transportation to that school. The same would be true with a breakfast or a lunch program."
Many charter schools also participate in extra-curricular activities. Some participate in traditional high school interscholastic athletic programs, while some take part in athletics with other charters in the area. Other schools choose not to have athletic programs at all.
"A charter school can choose to have, not only athletic programs, but other extra-curricular activities, but doesn't have to have them," Rowe said.
At Franklin Phonetic School, for instance, the Franklin Falcons compete in flag football, basketball, volleyball, track and cross-country against other local charter schools from the quad-city area.
Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of Arizona Charter Schools Association, said there's no statutory definition as to how sports are offered at charters.
"There is no one size fits all answer," Sigmund said.
State teaching certification is required for district schools, but is not mandatory at all charter schools. Some charters do require, however, that teachers be experts in the field they teach.
Funding formulas vary from charter schools to district schools. Dollar-to-dollar comparisons, she said, depend on student enrollment, grade levels offered at the school, and the size of the school. Some schools, she said, receive additional money for being a small school. Unlike district schools, charters also do not have access to money for new school buildings through the School Facilities Board.
Charter schools cannot opt for voter-approved bond and override tax dollars, though both can apply for federal grants. Charter schools also can solicit and receive donations.
Mary Ellen Halvorson, superintendent for Tri-City College Prep High School in Prescott, said that, while many charters bring in more state money per student than district schools, charter schools do not receive additional money in other areas, such as transportation. Total student funding, she said, shows a disparity between money for charter students when compared to students in district schools.
"It is not really equitable in the state of Arizona how funding goes," Halvorson said. "Charter schools do get a higher percentage on their average daily membership. However, since charter schools do not get all these other things, in the long run charter schools get less than districts."
Tomorrow: Teachers discuss the differences.
Follow reporter Patrick Whitehurst on Twitter @pwdcourier