Critics of State’s School Funding Plan Say It Will Favor Charters

When Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona was running for office last year, he campaigned on the slogan, “fund the waitlists” ─ calling for the reallocation of state education funds to go to successful schools that could not accommodate all of the students who wanted to enroll.

Once he took office this year, the governor wasted little time: In his budget proposal, he called for setting aside $24 million for high-performing schools. The plan quickly won the support of state lawmakers; in March, the Legislature approved the plan, although a joint legislative budget committee must still approve it.

The governor’s budget stipulates that half of the $24 million go to schools in low-income areas. But the real beneficiaries of the plan will be the state’s charter schools.

Twenty-one of Arizona’s top 30 public schools are charters, according to the Arizona Department of Education’s 2013 rankings. The greatest demand is for BASIS, which operates 14 charters in the state, most of which have enrollments twice their capacity, creating long waitlists. The BASIS primary school in Chandler, which will open this fall, has received six applications for each spot, the school’s chief executive, Peter Bezanson, said.

But the governor’s plan has its critics. Some school officials say that the proposal will drive a wedge between schools slated for these resources and those that did not earn the lofty rankings.

“It’s a matter of philosophy,” said H.T. Sánchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, which is the largest district in southern Arizona and has a 65 percent Latino enrollment, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

“If we’re trying to create a wealth divide, if our philosophy is funding kids whose parents read to them every night, who aren’t dealing with persistent poverty rather than kids where education is their way out, then that should be our funding model,” Dr. Sánchez said.

The Tucson district, for the most part, would not benefit from the governor’s plan, even though in 2013, the district graduated 2,534 students and had a four-year graduation rate of 81.5 percent, above the state average of 75.1 percent, according to state records.

“We should all be held to the same standards,” Dr. Sánchez said.

Arizona has the lowest per-student federal and state expenditures ($7,143 per year compared with $21,263 in Vermont) and the fourth lowest average public teacher salary nationwide ($45,264 annually versus $76,409 in New York), as reported by the National Education Association. According to legislative budget analysts, state funding per pupil was near $5,000 in 2008 and is now $4,216.

The disparity in funding can create undesirable choices for parents like Angela and Jeremiah Hackett, who moved to Arizona in 2006 with their two children. At the time, the state ranked last for public education ─ an untenable situation for a household with advanced degrees (she has a master’s and he a doctorate).

Mr. Hackett had been hired as a professor at the University of Arizona, and with children approaching elementary school age, the couple had to accept what Ms. Hackett characterized as the “woefully underfunded” local public school or find an alternative.

They enrolled their children in Catholic schools, but became dissatisfied. In 2012, they transferred their son, Isaiah, then in the fifth grade, to BASIS Tucson, a public charter school covering kindergarten to sixth grade. Graduates feed into a BASIS secondary school, one of the top schools in the nation for SAT performance. A year later, Isaiah, now 12, was joined by his sister, Caroline, 9.

The Hacketts say they are happy with the quality of education that their children are receiving, but have some misgivings that others could not benefit the way their children have.

It’s sad because we have a top-rated university in Arizona, but a lot of our local students don’t qualify. There wouldn’t be a need for BASIS if we properly funded the public schools.

—Angela Hackett

Michael Block, a professor at the University of Arizona, and his wife, Olga, founded BASIS Schools Inc. in 1998, when they opened their first charter school with 56 students in central Tucson. Ten years later, BASIS Tucson was named the best school in the country by Newsweek.

“We’re a hyper-accelerated, rigorous academic experience,” Mr. Bezanson said.

BASIS has schools across the country, and three locations will open near Phoenix in the fall. The five-year plan includes schools in Louisiana, Colorado and Georgia, according to Mr. Bezanson, who also sits on the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

But the environment is not for everyone.

This year, 245 seniors graduated from seven BASIS high schools in Arizona. And while school officials say the student bodies are diverse, compared with those of area public schools, BASIS schools have a much lower percentage of students who are Latino, black or Native American. At BASIS Scottsdale, which U.S. News & World Report ranked second in the nation this year, 32 of the 33 graduates in 2013 were white or Asian-American.

BASIS Tucson North
There is a waiting list for BASIS Tucson North, grades five through 12. The school says that it sends 100 percent of its students to universities and four-year colleges and that it has one of the highest average SAT scores in the country.Noelle Haro-Gomez/NYT INSTITUTE

BASIS also lacks some of the familiar trappings of traditional schools: There is no homecoming week, no football team and no cafeteria kitchen, among other things.

And although the BASIS schools report near-perfect graduation rates — last year 100 percent at Scottsdale and 96.43 percent at Tucson, according to the education department — they have an average 65 percent retention rate from eighth to ninth grade. Each year, from kindergarten to eighth grade, roughly 10 percent of a class transfers to another school, Mr. Bezanson said.

Outside of Washington, D.C., Arizona has the highest percentage of public students attending charter schools in the country. Families are increasingly selecting schools outside of their neighborhoods.

“School choice has been a blessing and a curse,” said Julie Erfle, whose son is transferring from BASIS Phoenix to a district school with an International Baccalaureate program and a track team. “A blessing in that if you have a child who learns differently, you have that option, but a curse in that a lot of the kids aren’t going to school with their neighbors. There isn’t much of a community.”

The governor’s plan would allow the high-achieving charters and district schools to take out guaranteed loans under the state’s credit for school improvements or expansions, said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the governor. The $24 million would cover the schools’ debt service.

The proposal would reward schools like BASIS Tucson North, which says that 100 percent of its students go on to attend four-year colleges or universities, and it would reduce funding to schools where graduation rates were lower.

Arizona has cut taxes in 24 of the last 26 years. Even BASIS, which will benefit from the governor’s plan, is taking a hit. Last week, the Arizona Department of Education announced that Senate Bill 1476 will strip $15 million in funding from small charter schools in the bill’s first year, with further cuts expected the following two years, according to the education department.

BASIS’s funding, according to Mr. Bezanson, comes “nearly exclusively from the state,” with support from federal grants and sales taxes for education money.

“We’ve taken a scalpel to our expenses,” he said. “Schools that are doing the best job should get the most money.”

 interactive map
An interactive map of the Arizona Department of Education's 70 "A" schools in Pima County layered with a map of the median household income in the last year by census tract. The 2013 income information is from Census Reporter, which includes data on median household income in the last year (in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars).Ben Bartenstein/NYT Institute

Explore an interactive map of the Arizona Department of Education’s 70 “A” schools in Pima County layered with a map of the median household income in the last year by census tract. The 2013 income information is from Census Reporter, which includes data on median household income in the last year (in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars).