AG Brnovich: Education Department misinterpreted charter-funding law

Arizona Republic

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said the Arizona Department of Education erred in its interpretation of legislation that would have cut funding for public charter schools.

 

The Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey in April agreed to eliminate some of the extra funding certain small charter schools had been receiving, but there was disagreement over how the law should be interpreted and its impact.

 

State lawmakers said they were told the cuts would have a $6.3 million impact in the first year, and total $20 million over three years. The Arizona Department of Education later interpreted the changes in a way that would have cut $15 million from the schools in its first year, and a total of more than $70 million over three years.

 

Under Senate Bill 1476, charter holders with more than 600 students total at multiple sites would see funding cut over three years. The Department of Education interpreted the law to also say that charters with a combined enrollment of less than 600 at multiple sites would lose all of the extra funding for the 2015-16 school year. Small charters that are not part of a franchise or chain are not affected.

 

The cuts take effect July 3.

 

The Attorney General's Office analysis said the Department of Education interpretation was "inconsistent" with the law's purpose and the funding cut does not affect schools with combined student counts below 600.

 

There was also debate over if and how the new law affected money the charters receive under the Proposition 301 Classroom Site Fund, which provides money for teachers through a sales tax, as well as charter schools' share of inflation funding.

 

Brnovich said the law does slightly impact the amounts schools receive for those sources.

 

"Nothing is more important than the education of our children," Brnovich said in a statement. "I'm not a policy maker, but as a parent, I believe Arizona should be doing everything it can to maximize education resources available for our children. This opinion is intended to clear up ambiguities related to the interpretation of current state statutes."

 

Following the uproar surrounding the Department of Education's initial interpretation, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas asked Brnovich to weigh in on the meaning of the legislation. Department of Education officials said they were just interpreting the language as it was written.

 

Charter officials and an analysis by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee had said the department's interpretation went far beyond what Ducey and the Legislature intended. At least one Republican lawmaker said he never would have supported the budget cut if he'd known the impact would be that severe.

 

The lawyer for the Legislative Council, a committee of state lawmakers, has said the Department of Education's interpretation is wrong. Ken Behringer, general counsel for the group, sent a memo to state Senate President Andy Biggs saying that schools in a network with fewer than 600 students should not face any funding cut. The memo also was sent to the Department of Education.

 

According to a spreadsheet used by the Department of Education to calculate the cuts, 207 schools will face cuts affecting about 85,000 students. About 15 percent of Arizona's public-school students attend charters.

 

Several of the state's highest-performing charters, including ones that have been touted by Ducey, have said Douglas' interpretation of the cuts would deter them from opening additional schools in Arizona.

 

Peter Bezanson, CEO of the Basis Schools charters, has said that the total cut to his network could be almost $4 million.

 

Rhonda Cagle, senior vice president of communications for Imagine Schools, has said the change will mean decreases of from $200 to $275 per student for 2015-16 at nine Arizona campuses next year. She said the majority of students at the Imagine Schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.