Arizona charter schools are scrambling to determine steps they’ll take in light of state budget cuts in public education for next school year.
It’s not just the per student funding that’s impacting them, charter leaders say. The decision to cut full-day kindergarten funding, as well as grants for gifted, prevention and early childhood programs is making it a “scary” time to be operating one of nearly 500 charter schools in the state. There are 113,393 students enrolled this year in charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, and more than 1 million enrolled schools operated by school districts.
“Schools are very nervous. It’s a tough time for all public schools, but charter schools have several things to consider,” said Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
Sue Douglas, who operates Mesa Arts Academy, said she knows she’s losing at least $80,000 next school year. Her operations budget this year is just more than $1 million.
Part of the funding she’s losing helps pay for gifted services at her school. But she says she’ll still be required by the state to offer those services.
She could lose an additional $20,000 if voters in May don’t approve Proposition 100, which would raise the state sales tax by 1 cent for three years. Public schools of all types are holding their breath before making final budget decisions.
“I don’t have a budget yet. Funding has been so volatile in the last two weeks,” she said of all the e-mails she’s exchanging with charter operators and lawmakers.
The major decision impacting the charters, Grisham and Douglas said, is the cut to full-day kindergarten.
“All-day (kindergarten) sounds huge when you talk about a district. But when you talk about a program such as ours that is so small it can decimate that program,” she said.
Many East Valley school districts have made the decision to offer full-day kindergarten without charging tuition by finding the funding from other sources, which may not be an option for charters, Grisham said.
“In order to stay competitive, they’ll need to offer full-day (kindergarten). That will need to come out of their pockets, which is underfunded,” she said.
Douglas said she has to offer a full-day program for two reasons: First, if she opened her 24 kindergarten slots to two half-day options, she would not have room the next year to accommodate all 48 first-graders. Mesa Arts Academy only has one first-grade classroom.
Plus, she said, students in her school need the full-day kindergarten program.
“We don’t offer an all-day (kindergarten) because we’re baby sitting. We’re offering an all-day (program) because of their needs, their poverty, their second language,” she said. “They absolutely need an all-day kindergarten. They don’t have the cultural background other kids have. They don’t have the experiences that make the learning real. They’re learning language for the first time.”
Nearly 25 percent of all public schools in Arizona are charter schools. Like school districts, they receive per pupil funding from the state.
All public schools — charters and district — are going to lose $2,200 per kindergarten student next school year, Grisham said.
State lawmakers, facing a $4.4 billion budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, made cuts to several areas, including education.
To make up the rest, state lawmakers put a three-year, 1-cent hike in the state sales tax on the May 18 ballot.
“Charter schools survive month to month,” Grisham said. “They have a mortgage to pay for. These bonds, they don’t care. They want their payment like a mortgage company wants their payments.”
Many charter schools sell bonds to raise funds.
The loss of funds next year is especially concerning for the newer charters, Grisham said, that are still trying to establish themselves in communities.
“No one is sending out closure notices yet,” Grisham said, “though it will certainly be a possibility for some charter schools.”