Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why does the AZ Legislature refuse to make charter schools accountable to taxpayers?

This morning, non-profit investigative journalism website ProPublica published a story about problems with charter school accountability. This is not a new issue in or for Arizona.

In 2008, David Safier blogged about the problem,
Charter schools are public schools, but they are free from most of the regulation and accountability imposed on traditional public schools. Really, just about the only thing charters have to do is make their students take state tests. Otherwise, they spend their money with only the most minimal accounting, they hire teachers who may or may not have credentials, and they have few if any visitors from the Department of Education checking in to see if they are making reasonable attempts at educating their students.
Many charter schools don't need more regulation and oversight. They have hard working owners and dedicated staff. They're doing a great job without anyone's help. In those cases, additional regulatory precautions are unnecessary but probably not harmful. But Arizona's charter school history is littered with mismanaged schools, sometimes run by people who kept tax dollars for themselves that were intended for their students' educations. For all we know, there are dozens of schools like that in operation right now. But we don't know for sure, because nobody's checking. We're letting that "invisible hand of the marketplace" work its magic. But those of us older than ten years old know that magic is done with smoke, mirrors and sleight of hand. When it's performed for a willing audience, it's fun. When it's inflicted on us by scoundrels, it's dangerous. 
On the other hand, the Arizona Charter Schools Association says:
Simply put, a charter is a contract to improve student achievement. Arizona laws provide public charter schools more autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for improved student achievement. Charters are evaluated for their academic, fiscal and operational compliance. They are held accountable for students’ academic performance, compliance with state laws and management of public funding. (emphasis added)
Charters in Arizona can be authorized by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the Arizona Department of Education, school districts, and Arizona universities and community colleges. Arizona provides families the opportunity to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child. 
ProPublica's story highlights the fact that authorizing agencies are the ones responsible for holding their charter schools accountable. But do they do so?

The ACSA's page on Charter School Laws says very little, except:
Arizona has many statues that apply specifically to charter schools, most located in Title 15-181 to 15-189.03 of the Arizona Revised Statutes (“A.R.S.”). Arizona law states that charter schools are public schools created to improve student achievement and provide additional academic choices for parents and students.
If you do not understand a statute or need legal advice regarding the application of a statute to a specific situation, please consult with your charter school attorney.
The rest of the content for that page is for ACSA members only, with login required. That looks more like PR than accountability. Make the public THINK you want charter schools to be accountable, but HIDE the details so the public cannot hold them actually accountable. For the record, the public can read ARS Title 15 and all of its contents on the Arizona Legislature's website, without having to log in.

Now, if charter schools actually were willing to be accountable, wouldn't you think they should have no problem with having to be subject to the same audit and ongoing financial monitoring requirements as traditional public schools? A.R.S. 41-1279.03 spells out the duties and powers of the Arizona Auditor General. Among those responsibilities, subsection A, paragraph 9 requires the agency to "conduct performance audits AND monitor school districts to determine the percentage of every dollar spent in the classroom by the school district."

This is so important that Scrooge McDucey is demanding, in his FY2016 budget request (still to be authorized by the legislature; FY2016 begins on July 1, 2015) that district schools reduce NON-classroom spending by five percent.
Gov. Doug Ducey's proposal calls for a 5 percent reduction in non-classroom spending. Schools calculate that the reduction would mean $113 million less to spend statewide on things such as technology, textbooks and staff, including school library, food service and health workers.
If McDucey and the Republican-dominated legislature was genuinely interested in ensuring taxpayer money is used wisely to educate our children, then why is Sen. Andrea D'Alessandro's SB1396 dying of neglect? SB1396 would make charter schools subject to the same performance audit and financial monitoring requirements that district schools already face.
9.  Beginning on July 1, 2001, Establish a school-wide schoolwide audit team in the office of the auditor general to conduct performance audits and monitor school districts and charter schools to determine the percentage of every dollar spent in the classroom by a school district or charter school.  The performance audits shall determine whether school districts and charter schools that receive monies from the Arizona structured English immersion fund established by section 15‑756.04 and the statewide compensatory instruction fund established by section 15‑756.11 are in compliance with title 15, chapter 7, article 3.1.  The auditor general shall determine, through random selection, the school districts and charter schools to be audited each year, subject to review by the joint legislative audit committee.  A school district or charter school that is subject to an audit pursuant to this paragraph shall notify the auditor general in writing as to whether the school district or charter school agrees or disagrees with the findings and recommendations of the audit and whether the school district or charter school will implement the findings and recommendations, implement modifications to the findings and recommendations or refuse to implement the findings and recommendations.  The school district or charter school shall submit to the auditor general a written status report on the implementation of the audit findings and recommendations every six months for two years after an audit conducted pursuant to this paragraph.  The auditor general shall review the school district's or charter school's progress toward implementing the findings and recommendations of the audit every six months after receipt of the district's or charter school's status report for two years.  The auditor general may review a school district's or charter school's progress beyond this two‑year period for recommendations that have not yet been implemented by the school district or charter school.  The auditor general shall provide a status report of these reviews to the joint legislative audit committee.  The school district or charter school shall participate in any hearing scheduled during this review period by the joint legislative audit committee or by any other legislative committee designated by the joint legislative audit committee.
Language in red, with strike-out, would be eliminated from the statute. Language in blue would be added to the statute. SB1396 has not been heard in committees and was assigned to extra committees to make it that much more difficult to pass.

A few days ago, Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts asked, "Why does the Arizona Legislature hate public schools?" A question that gets to the heart of the matter. But she didn't answer the question and neither did any of the 28 comments readers posted on azcentral in response to her column. The closest anyone came to the answer was Bob Littlefield, former Scottsdale City Councilman and 2014 Republican primary candidate for a House seat in LD23. Roberts said,
The Arizona Legislature continues its campaign to dismantle traditional public education this week.
It seems our leaders aren't content with years of starving the schools of adequate funding. They're not content with the choices already offered by charters or through tuition tax credits that have diverted millions of tax dollars to private schools.
Heck, they're not even content with Gov. Doug Ducey's proposal to cut operating funds for K-12 schools by another $13.5 million next year.
So now comes Senate Bill 1434, allowing virtually any parent of a public-school student to siphon money from the state and put it toward private- or parochial-school tuition.
Littlefield, in his comment, blamed voters and public school supporters,
The people who want to undermine public education work hard to support their candidates and they turn out to vote. Supporters of public education, not so much.
Because words are powerful, I would suggest one problem is when newspaper columnists use the label "leaders" when writing about lawmakers. That reinforces the connotation that voters can't do anything to fix the problem. No, I generally abhor referencing characters like Scrooge McDucey and Andy Biggshot as leaders. They are authority figures because WE delegated our authority as citizens to them. They need to follow our direction. And McDucey has already, less than two months into his term, demonstrated that he can be made to backtrack on bad decisions and ideas.

Ultimately, the bottom line answer to Roberts' question is: there are too damn many Republicans in the Arizona Legislature. People can complain about the voters all they want, but really, it just plain boils down to that Arizonans have been duped long enough and hard enough that we have had to endure years of Republican domination of public policy formation and lawmaking.

If that was not the case, D'Alessandro's bill (SB1396) would have passed a long time ago and we would be able to have an informed policy debate about the merits of charter schools based on comparability of data supplied by the Arizona Auditor General.

In the meantime, we are stuck and the dismantling of Arizona's K-12 public education continues at breakneck speed.


  1. The Arizona Legislature and Governor Scrooge McDucey don't want more accountability for charter "schools" because then it would show them to be the con on the taxpayer that they are. Charter "schools" are just another way to steal taxpayer dollars for the benefit of private individuals and groups.

  2. Too many legislators with conflicts of interest would be revealed. And it is the voters who elect these charlatans. Last i checked, every district had a Dem and an R running. The voters keep choosing the Rs, so they must like the policies.