AG probing legality of schools' partnership - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

AG probing legality of schools' partnership

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Posted: Friday, October 2, 2009 3:42 pm | Updated: 2:33 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

State officials are questioning an arrangement in which a private school in Glendale and a Mesa-based public charter-school operator have teamed up to help finance the private school with taxpayer dollars.

State records obtained by The Arizona Republic show that Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning, a charter-school firm, collected at least $1.9 million in state funds in 2005-08 to teach Joy Christian School students.

During the same period, the records show Joy Christian was collecting tuition payments from the parents of the same students, many of whom used private-school tuition tax credits to help pay. Tuition ranges from $6,710 to $8,000 this year.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office is examining the legality of all aspects of the schools' partnership.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said a parent's complaint led him to turn over documents to the AG's Office.

"The parent had paid tuition for a child to attend a private school and, simultaneously, someone was getting public money for teaching the class in that school," Horne said. "That sounded like a legal issue. It's up to the attorney general what conclusions are drawn."

A non-profit tuition organization that provides most of Joy Christian's scholarship money said it will stop providing the tax-credit funds if the school doesn't dramatically reduce the number of Sequoia-provided courses.

Last year, Sequoia taught nearly 60 percent of Joy Christian's courses. Sequoia said the arrangement started when it was asked to help the students and that Joy Christian does not pay it to provide the classes.

Joy Christian board president Mike Eblin said he could not provide details on how the school's tuition money was used but defended the arrangement between the two schools.

The partnership began in the 2004-05 school year when Sequoia began providing Joy Christian a few courses that the private school couldn't afford, such as a high-end math course and a language course. The relationship gradually expanded into special-education and high-school courses.

In 2008, Joy Christian received $590,417 in donations for scholarships through Arizona's private-school tax-credit program, which redirects state tax funds, according to the Republic's analysis of state data.

The tax credit gives taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar reduction of their state income tax for donating to private-school tuition scholarships. The money is collected and distributed by non-profit school-tuition organizations.

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