Charter Schools and the Legislature

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The state legislature approved $24 million to guarantee loans so that charter school businesses can expand their operations. Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter School Association, will discuss how charter schools fared during the legislative session.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Governor Doug Ducey today signed a bill that prohibits Arizona from using a state-run health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act. The move puts the health insurance for more than 200,000 Arizonans in jeopardy because a U.S. Supreme Court case could end the kind of federally run exchanges that Arizona now uses. The Governor actually signed the bill last Friday, but his office did not announce the signing until yesterday. The state legislature approved $20 million to guarantee loans so that charter school businesses can expand their operations. Here to talk about that and more is Eileen Sigmund, President and CEO of the Arizona Charter School Association. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us.

Eileen Sigmund: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: Legislative session: What are your thoughts?

Eileen Sigmund: It was a tough, short, intense session. In 12 years of being a lobbyist it was one of the quickest and certainly one of the quickest in 50 years.

Ted Simons: Was it too quick?

Eileen Sigmund: There was a lot of late nights, but we know what the budgets are -- Well, we're still trying to figure out the effects of the budget. We're still trying to figure out the effect of the cuts.

Ted Simons: I want to get to the cuts in a second. We talked about this $24 million back charter expansion loans. We don't have the details of how this is going to work.

Eileen Sigmund: And I don't really have details if this is going to back charter loans, either. The details will be turned over to the joint legislative budget committee. So where the charter association is and our members are, is we want to get excellent schools to more kids. If this achievement district does that for all public schools and public school children we are very appreciative. We just don't have details.

Ted Simons: The fact that it could be unconstitutional, the idea that it could be a gift for charters, how can you plan when you don't even know if it's going to be challenged legally?

Eileen Sigmund: Certainly a lot of laws, the one you just responded to on the Medicaid expansion, there will always be court challenges. Charter students are leading some of those challenges on 301. Right now what the concept is, is to expand what's working and get to it more kids. I think we all want that. Those are the broad parameters that I have seen and heard, but I haven't -- the details? No one's seen.

Ted Simons: No kidding, still looking for them.

Eileen Sigmund: And anyone who says it's for charter schools, from what Governor Ducey says it's for all public schools.

Ted Simons: We don't even know that. We'll wait to get the details on that. As far as the cuts now, how much was cut to charter schools, and what kind of charter schools were hit the hardest?

Eileen Sigmund: Sure. Charter students did not go unscathed in this budget. It was a difficult budget, a billion-dollar deficit. The budget cuts, all charter students which are about 200,000 right now, they are at about $20 million of continuing cuts for facilities for transportation, for books, for technology, that's continued. $3 million was added to that bucket. The second cut was about 50% of students got an additional cut and that is some of our best schools, some of our nationally ranked schools and schools serving homeless students, schools that are serving deaf students. It was across the gamut of schools that were cut.

Ted Simons: And the schools that were cut, fewer than 600 of -- it was charter schools with fewer than 600 students that was targeted. Why?

Eileen Sigmund: The budget conditions that the legislature and the governor walked into, they cut broadly across all spectrums. What the cuts here were focused on is, if a school is in Tucson and a school is in Phoenix, and it is greater than 600 students but two separate schools, what this legislation says, you're a network and you should be able to combine resources and be more efficient. So we're going to cut you. For example, we have academy of math and science in Tucson, they are expanding three new schools for Phoenix, an initiative we're working on to serve more students in high-poverty areas of Phoenix. Because of the schools combined are more than 600, but alone they are not, this combines those two schools. So that's the issue.

Ted Simons: What about charter schools that stand alone at fewer than 600 students?

Eileen Sigmund: If you're fewer than 600 students and not part of a larger network you're not affected.

Ted Simons: Does that make sense to you? First of all, forget whether or not it makes sense to you. Did you see that cut coming?

Eileen Sigmund: No. This was a cut that came and we read the language at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. By 3:00 on Friday we sent 33,000 emails and activated a lot of people. We're still trying to figure out the language two weeks after session.

Ted Simons: Did the emails work?

Eileen Sigmund: The emails worked in cutting the cuts from 50% and being sort of loose language to tightening up the language and now being a 33% cut. But it's still -- school funding, Ted, you've been here, it's $4.5 billion of the general fund. It is 35 years old, complex, not transparent, it needs to be overhauled for all students.

Ted Simons: We do show after show here and it's like a brand-new issue trying to reach for logic and understanding. Still, you say you were surprised by this. Where did this idea come from?

Eileen Sigmund: This has been something certainly that has been discussed at the legislature in a context of school finance. But to see the language was a surprise. And we don't know where it came. From two thirds of the cuts are in statute now for fiscal year 17 and fiscal year 18. We're hoping we have a comprehensive school finance. Frankly, one student should not be worth less than another student. And equal resources should flow to all of our one million public students.

Ted Simons: Biggest success for charters this session.

Eileen Sigmund: We have -- we have several bills that passed. One is districts are able to sell their facilities. When they are losing students they are able to sell their facilities. Some districts would block a charter school from even bidding on that facility. There is a bill the Governor signed that said if you're selling your facility you need to allow a charter school to bid it for and get highest dollar for that public asset. That was great to be able to get that through. Facilities are a huge issue.

Ted Simons: So the biggest disappointment I would imagine would be the cuts in funding.

Eileen Sigmund: Funding has always been our priority. We are 100% funded by the general fund. When we go through a recession we know it.

Ted Simons: Are you expecting better next session? I the answer to this, but are you really expecting better next session?

Eileen Sigmund: The Governor's putting together a school finance task force. Preliminary report of that task force is September 1st, final by December 1st. Yes. The Governor has put K-12 education as one of his top priorities. He really wants to put the quality of choice. So yes, we expect better.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Eileen Sigmund: Thank you.

Eileen Sigmund:President and CEO, Arizona Charter School Association;

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