At the beginning of the charter school experiment, charter school advocates touted their ability to provide a superior education at a lower cost than traditional public schools. Now, we are seeing the charter lobby abandon that claim and turn to the courts to demand equal funding for charter schools. In Texas, charter school advocates recently lost their claim for equal funding. In New York, charter school advocates have sued for equal facilities funding. In a ruling that may have wide ramifications, last week an Arizona appellate court affirmed a lower court's ruling that the differential funding systems for public and charter schools do not violate Arizona's constitution.
In Craven v. Huppenthal, parents of children in Arizona charter schools
sued the state, claiming that Arizona's school funding scheme was unconstitutional
because it caused "gross disparities between charter public schools and other public schools." The lower court had granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and defendant-intervenors the Arizona School Boards Association and Creighton Elementary School District No. 14. The plaintiff-parents appealed.
The appellate court first noted that charter schools are free from many of the regulations governing public schools. For example, Arizona charters are exempt from statutes governing teacher hiring, firing and management. Arizona charter schools may limit enrollment to a certain age group or grade levels. Their curriculum may emphasize a certain philosophy, style or subject area. The court also pointed out that charter schools are funded differently than public schools as well. Unlike public schools, charters receive additional state funding, and may accept grants and donations to supplement their funding. Charter schools owned by non-profits may receive funds obtained through certain facility bonds. Charter schools are also entitled to stimulus funds for start-up and certain facility costs.
The plaintiffs contended that the different funding schemes of charters and public schools violated both the general and uniform education clause of Arizona's constitution and its equal protection clause. The court, affirming the lower court's decision, rejected both claims.
Prior rulings of Arizona's Supreme Court interpreted the general and uniform clause to require that the state provide a public school system that is adequate. The plaintiff-parents in this case admitted that their children were receiving an adequate education at the charter schools. In fact, parents testified that the charter schools had "quality academics" and an "exceptional education." Thus, the court concluded that the state did not violate the general and uniform clause.
The court also rejected the equal protection claim, noting with approval the reasoning of a New Jersey appellate court, in J.D. ex rel. Scipio-Derrick v. Davy, 2 A.3d 387, 397-98 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2010), in a similar equal protection case brought by charter school parents. In that case, the New Jersey court pointed out that children's attendance at a charter school is purely voluntary. They could withdraw at any time and enroll in their local public school; the school they claimed was funded adequately. Consequently, the court ruled that "the voluntariness of the program vitiates any asserted deprivation of a right to receive an education at a school that is fully funded to the same extent as other Newark public schools," because the children in the charter school have the "unabridged option" to attend their district public school. The Arizona court applied this reasoning to this case, ruling that since the charter school students can at any time attend their district public school, they are not being treated differently than other students.
In a footnote, the Arizona court noted that the plaintiffs conceded that charter and public schools are not similarly situated, but claimed that those distinctions are irrelevant because the plaintiffs were attempting to focus on the treatment of the children in the charter schools. However, the court pointed out that it was the schools that received the different funding, not the students. Because the students themselves were free to attend their district public schools, their equal protection rights were not violated.
This ruling makes clear that the very nature of charters, as voluntary alternatives to public schools and free from some of the regulations constraining public schools, permits the state to treat charters differently than public schools in matters of funding. The reasoning of the Arizona court can and may very well be applied in future cases as we see charter school advocates across the country appealing to courts to force states to fund them on par with public schools.