Arizona education officials hope a recent opinion issued by the state attorney general will convince the U.S. Department of Education that charter schools run by for-profit companies are entitled to keep millions of federal dollars. At issue is whether charter schools that are run by such companies meet the federal definition of a “local education agency.” The state attorney general’s review of Arizona law concludes that they do, but a federal investigator disagrees
Last year, a federal audit of 20 Arizona charter schools called on the state to repay at least $1.1 million in aid under the Title I compensatory education program and the Individuals with Disabilities Act. (“U.S. Audit Raps Arizona’s Use of Charter Aid,” Dec. 3, 2003.)
The audit by the Education Department’s inspector general found that since 2000, the state had improperly passed on the federal aid to more than 29 for-profit companies operating some 75 charter schools in Arizona
The inspector general concluded that private, for-profit companies that run charter schools don’t meet the federal government’s definition of a local education agency, and therefore aren’t eligible to receive the money at issue
Tom Horne, Arizona’s state superintendent of schools, challenged the Education Department’s findings, arguing that they ignored Arizona law, which calls for the equal treatment of nonprofit and for-profit charter schools. He argued that all charter schools in his state, regardless of who runs them, are public schools.
The state attorney general’s office agreed with the superintendent in its opinion late last month.
“Because all Arizona charter schools are public schools and are mandated to comply with all federal and state laws regarding the education of children with disabilities in the same manner as school districts, all charter schools, including those operated by for-profit organizations, function as [local education agencies] under Arizona law,” Attorney General Terry Goddard concluded.
Waiting for Response
As with regular public school districts, charter schools can’t refuse to admit children based on their disabilities, according to the Mr. Goddard. The state also requires charter schools, regardless of who operates them, to establish policies and procedures for educating all children with disabilities living within their jurisdictions.
As such, he said, charter schools are financed by the state in the same manner as regular public schools.
Mr. Horne hopes that no more appeals will be necessary. “I think the federal Department of Education will change that ruling now that they have full information,” he said in an interview last week.
Whether Mr. Goddard’s opinion will sway the federal department remains to be seen. His review was prompted by a request from federal education officials for an opinion on Mr. Horne’s position.
A spokesman with the Arizona Department of Education said Aug. 5 that the superintendent had not yet heard from federal officials one way or the other.
Lawyers with the federal department are reviewing the state attorney general’s opinion, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. agency.