School Funding Lawsuit

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Some charter school students and their families are asking that the Arizona Court of Appeals reverse a Maricopa County Superior Court ruling from last April that upheld the current funding system for K-12 schools. Those filing the suit say that system gives much more money per pupil to traditional public school students. The plantiff’s attorney, Korey Langhofer, and Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill, will discuss the case and school funding for charter and traditional public schools.

Ted Simons: A group of charter school students and their families are asking the Arizona court of appeals to reverse a Maricopa county superior court ruling that upholds the current funding system for K-12 schools. Those appealing the ruling say that the system gives much more money per pupil to traditional public school students at the expense of charter school students. Joining me now is the plaintiff's attorney Kory Langhofer and also joining us is Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill. Good to see you both here and thanks for joining us. Talk to us about this suit now, what are you asking the appeals court to do?

Korey Langhofer: The education funding system is outdated. The major parts were put in place in 1980 when Arizona had one fax machine. It's very old. And because it's so outdated, there are significant disparities or inequalities in the system. The average student gets of 8800 dollars of funding a year. Some schools, though, have as much as 19,000 dollars a year for their students. So there is a huge disparity, what the lawsuit is asking, is for the court of appeals to say to the legislature, it's time you revisit the system and update this outdated system, and make it more equal, more fair.

Ted Simons: Is it not equal? Is it not fair, as it stands?

Andrew Morrill: It's, as complicated as the education funding has been, one thing, the legislature has modernized it, and by cutting about 1.5 billion over the last five years, so it has been adjusted. And we would stipulate that it's been, been insufficient, and underfunding students, whether you are talking about charters or traditional schools. We need to get the numbers right. The fact is, that it's really not disputed among education groups, and the joint legislative budget committee will tell you in terms of the state funding per pupil, charter schools get more per pupil than tradiational schools, and that's why you see right now, in the last session, about 60 schools converting over to charter school funding so that they can get that additional funding, so let's make sure that we are talking about state funding, which is what this is really about.

Ted Simons: Does -- there is a discrepancy in a discrepancy here.

Korey Langhofer: So, the, the -- it's not accurate. It is true that many public district schools are creating charters within the district system. So that they can sort of double dip. There is a gimmick in the law, you can take advantage of, to get extra money for schools by being a Charter School. And, and the, the record in the case just doesn't show, though, that the charter schools are overfunded. When you look at the appropriated state funds, go to, that go to charter schools, we get 1,000-1,300 less per student every year. And that's what the evidence in the case shows.

Ted Simons: And what's going on here? We're seeing numbers over here and numbers over there.

Andrew Morrill: Right. And what we need to do is take a look at the Federal funding, and that is offered to school districts with additional responsibilities attached to those. And we know that we have got local funding mechanisms of overrides and bonds and that really points to the difference of charter schools versus traditional public schools, yes, they are all publicly funded, but one major difference is that when communities fund, overrides and bonds, those assets that add to the district remain in the public sector. Those are public assets. And so, buildings expanded, buildings built, and they remain in the public trust as taxpayer funded and owned. You don't see that with charter schools. So, there are a number of, a number of differences. Teacher certification requirements, the mission of charter schools when you look at the spread across our charter schools in Arizona, the student body is being served. The representation of ethnic diversity, the special needs students, and one begins to feel that there is a different mission to our charter schools. The courts evidently found so because they rejected some of the claims as to the inequitable funding.

Korey Langhofer: So, the basic point, and I don't think it's controversial, is students have to be treated equally. Right. It's not fair to start charter students or public school students behind the line, right, at a disadvantaged spot compared to other student. And I think that, that just from our conversation here, you could see our system is so complicated, you have got many from local taxes, federal taxes, state taxes, and it's so complicated and it has been so long since it was updated. That, that we have no longer have a guarantee that our students are being treated equally regardless of where they attend school.

Ted Simons: It sounds as though the students being served, that, that particular focus, that's not equal, as well. Charter schools do have more freedom in what they do and how they do it. As opposed to traditional public schools. And if that's the case, should the funding still be exactly the same?

Korey Langhofer: So, it is true that charter schools have less regulation, than public district schools, and in fact, that's one of the reasons why, why with the same, with less funding, we're able to achieve the same results as public district schools. And the mismatch in funding between the district schools and charter schools hasn't been tied to those regulations. Just a number that has come about. And if it were tied, if the difference that it were tied to the regulations it would be a better argument for the state but right now, it's just a difference without a reason.

Ted Simons: Is it fair that charters don't have the safety net of taxing, of bonding of overrides?

Andrew Morrill: Well, they may not have those but they have the ability to control the funds that they are receiving, in ways that the district cannot. Case in point, we know that small schools get additional funds, from the state, and charter schools have the ability to treat each of the schools within a charter as separate entities. And districts have to add up all the schools, and if they go over the total, they cannot access that funding. So, really, this is a, a disparity as you said within a disparity, but the mission, the relationship of traditional schools to the community, the separation that makes charters publicly funded, but able to hold private assets, within a private structure, really makes this more complicated than just the, the question of should the funding be the same. The courts have said, as long as we're funding charter schools consistently, and traditional schools consistently, they do not have to be funded the same because they have different missions.

Ted Simons: Is consistency more important to the plaintiffs, more so than making that number whatever it is equal, even though again, charter and traditional public, not necessarily equal

Korey Langhofer: What is essential, what can't be changed is that students have to have equal starting points. You can't say, that, that the charter school system has the same results of the public district system, and therefore, it's fine. We have to, to be given the same starting point and under the current system, it's outdated, and we don't have that.

Ted Simons: Starting point not the same, agreed?

Andrew Morrill: We backed off the starting points, to the point that the funding is inadequate across our schools, and look at the distribution of charter schools across the state. Some are exploring serving student needs and students in areas that they have not, traditionally. Let's remember the charter schools came into the state on a promise of better for cheaper, we have not seen the better because they perform at about the same distribution of traditional schools, and now, the cheaper argument seems to be being wrestled with and changed somewhat, in this case, and in other situations.

Ted Simons: Is it ok, though, to see that better and cheaper, that formula may not be working, let's go ahead and tinker and improve it, if it means better education for kids.

Andrew Morrill: One of the things that we could do with charter schools, any time that we wanted was say, for the expansion of funding in the capital areas, to build buildings, that's fine, but, those will retain and stay state property, if they are publicly funded, why not have them remain as public assets? That would be interesting. But, there are many challenges that the charter schools launch where they say, on the one hand we want public funds, but we don't want to play by the same rules as other schools.

Ted Simons: Are charters willing to play by the same rules if that means the same funding?

Korey Langhofer: That's the modernization that we need, and I think we are willing to have that conversation and we want to.

Ted Simons: Before I let you go, this idea of charter schools having to repay money, I know that's in the courts, as well, and where does that stand and what's going on here?

Korey Langhofer: So, this is a completely separate matter, but, and in 2011 and in 2012, the, the state department of education had a way of allocating tax dollars to schools. And they changed that method in 2013. And they wanted to apply the new method backwards. So the money you receive under old plan should have been -- they might want to take that back. And the new lawsuit is, basically, insisting that, that the old rules apply then and the new rules apply going forward.

Ted Simons: 30 seconds left here.

Andrew Morrill: My understanding is that one of the problems with that particular issue is that you have charter schools that are, are not wanting to return money that, that, for years when they may not have been operating. So, I'm not, not sure that, that it's a, as simple of a matter as it seems. The districts that ended up owing money and there were not very many, are under a plan, negotiated with the department of education to pay that back.

Korey Langhofer: And the, the districts who, that received excess money under the new rule, that has been improved, all get to keep the funding. We're not trying to take the money away from the districts at all.

Andrew Morrill: Many districts ended up being owed money. My understanding from talking to the department of Ed, is that they tried to negotiate as fair of a settlement for everybody as was possible.

Ted Simons: Ok, we'll stop it right there. A good discussion.

Andrew Morrill: Thank you very much.

Korey Langhofer:Attorney;Andrew Morrill:President, Arizona Education Association;

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