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Arizona court: Charters can’t demand same funding as traditional public schools


An appellate court in Arizona has ruled that there is a “rational basis” for funding charter schools and public charter schools differently and that it is not against the state constitution to do so.

The decision late last month is the latest in a number of court rulings across the country that have rejected equal protection challenges advanced by charter school students and their parents, and that have said that charter school parents have every right to return their children to traditional schools that they believe are better funded.

The case was Craven V. Huppenthal, in which some parents of students in Arizona public charter schools sued the state government, claiming that it was not funding charters as well as traditional public schools and that this violated the state constitution. A lower court ruled against the parents, who appealed, and lost again.

Here’s part of a write-up on the case from  the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the United States:

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….
….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.

The Arizona appellate court’s ruling notes that the lower court in the case had decided that a “rational basis” exists for funding charter and district schools. It says in part:

Other courts have rejected similar equal protection challenges asserted by charter school students. In J.D. ex rel. Scipio-Derrick v. Davy, 2 A.3d 387, 397-98 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2010), the court stated:
In assessing a state equal protection claim, we must first identify the nature of the affected right. That right is to receive a thorough and efficient education. Unlike the students involved in the Robinson [v. Cahill, 303 A.2d 273 (N.J. 1973), reh’g granted, 351 A.2d 713 (N.J. 1975)] and Abbott [v. Burke, 495 A.2d 376 (N.J. 1985)] cases, who, by virtue of their residence, were required to attend specific public schools in their district, plaintiffs’ enrollment in their charter schools is completely voluntary. They can withdraw at any time and enroll in the traditional public schools in Newark which are receiving the full funding which they seek for their charter schools.
. . . .
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 when charter school students have the unabridged option of attending one of those traditional public schools in their district.
We agree with the New Jersey court’s analysis, which applies with equal force to the relevant provisions of the Arizona Constitution. Appellants’ children have available to them the same rights and privileges as other members of their class. At any time, they may choose to attend district schools that receive the funding they deem more desirable. As pled by Appellants, their children have not been treated unequally as a matter of law. Because Appellants have not established the requisite disparate treatment, we need not decide whether proven inequality would trigger strict scrutiny or rational basis review.

Here’s the court’s complete ruling: