What are the differences?
by Tim Carter, Yavapai County School Superintendent
As the Yavapai County school superintendent and a member of the Arizona State Board of Education, I receive many questions from the public, and one of the most common is, “What are the differences between school districts and charter schools?”
School districts and charter schools are both public schools. This is a common public misunderstanding. Both entities are designated as “Local Education Agencies” (LEAs) and fall under the jurisdiction of the State of Arizona (Governor, Legislature, Courts, Arizona State Board of Education and the Arizona Department of Education). Charter schools additionally are under the jurisdiction of their sponsor, in most cases, the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools. Both types of schools are tax-supported. Charters receive funding directly from the state general fund. Districts receive their funding from a combination of general-fund dollars and local property taxes, referred to as “equalization” and using the assessed value of the property within the district as a factor.
District schools date back to at least the establishment of statehood, but many were in operation prior to that time. There are several different types of school districts in Arizona, but collectively they serve students from Kindergarten through 12th grade in a rather comprehensive manner, including a variety of academic options, extracurricular activities – such as athletics and fine arts – transportation, food service and the like. An act of the Arizona Legislature in 1994 established charter schools. The first charters opened in 1995. Simply put, a charter is a “contract for student achievement” that identifies the specific mission of the school, such as fine arts, technology-based, college prep, dropout recovery/prevention or uses a specific educational theme, such as Montessori or experiential learning.
School districts are overseen by an elected governing board. State statute presumes that governing boards will have three members, but also allows boards to be expanded to five members by an affirmative vote of the district electors in a special election. As a result, most governing boards in Arizona actually have five members. The powers and duties of the governing boards are also outlined in statute, which lists those powers that boards “shall” exercise (ARS 15- 341) and those they “may” exercise (ARS 150-342) at their discretion.
Charter school governance is established by the charter documents, under the jurisdiction of their sponsor, and is vested in the charter holder. Normally charter school boards are established for advisory purposes, and their powers vary from one charter to another. These board members are not elected by voters, and may be selected by the charter holder or “self-perpetuating” by the local charter board itself.
School districts have specific boundaries established by law, and modifications to those boundaries generally require an act of the Legislature, the County Board of Supervisors or a vote of the district electors. Each district is a separate and distinct political subdivision. Arizona law does allow “open enrollment,” so parents are free to take their child to a different school district other than the one in which they reside, if the school has “capacity.” Charters do not have specific boundaries, yet the open enrollment statute still applies.
According to the latest data from AZReportCards.org, Arizona currently has 216 school districts operating 1,924 schools, serving 1,112,146 students or 87 percent of Arizona’s school-aged youth . There are 425 charter holders operating 533 schools, with 157,438 students or 13 percent of the student population. Yavapai County has 26 districts and 24 charter schools. A directory of Yavapai County schools is available at YCESA.com, using the “schools” tab.