Opinion: Failure of charter school reform a missed opportunity

Big things aren’t easily done at the Arizona Capitol.

More often, progress is made incrementally. It requires give and take – compromise that has regrettably become something of a lost art in our modern politics.

I say this in noting the demise of legislation I led – the Charter School Transparency & Accountability Act, SB 1394. Why did it come up short? Simply put, some lawmakers believed the legislation went too far and others felt strongly it didn’t go far enough, thereby ensuring there would not be the required 31 YES votes on the Floor of the Arizona House.

A Bipartisan Product

The legislation was the product of months of work beginning in the summer of 2018. We sought input from lawmakers of both parties, education leaders and charter advocates and skeptics alike. Two of Arizona’s biggest charter-school critics – the Grand Canyon Institute and ACLU – each participated in discussions and had recommendations incorporated into the bill. Ultimately, the ACLU endorsed SB 1394, as did Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman (a Democrat) and Attorney General Mark Brnovich (a Republican).

Bill Would Have Made a Difference

As I said, getting things done isn’t easy. But the fact remains that this was a tremendous missed opportunity to improve governance and oversight of public charter schools in Arizona. SB 1394 would have:

  • Empowered the Arizona Attorney General to investigate and prosecute charter-school financial abuses, including granting the office civil subpoena authority;
  • Enabled the Auditor General to review charter finances, upon referral by the AG;
  • Mandated every charter school have a governing body of at least 3 members, and prohibited family members from constituting a majority;
  • Made it easier to follow the money by requiring critical charter financial data – annual revenues, expenditures, assets, liabilities and more – be trackable at a single online clearinghouse;
  • Barred any related-party transactions unless publicly approved and disclosed with a written justification showing how the deal is in the best interest of the school.

The Arizona Republic itself grudgingly acknowledged SB 1394 “would have made the most significant changes to charter schools since the Arizona Legislature authorized their creation in 1994.”

Charter Reform Will Have to Wait

The legislation would not have solved every concern relating to charter schools in Arizona. But it would have been a big step forward when it comes to shining a light on charter finances, ensuring charter governance is more independent and granting oversight entities ranging from the Attorney General to the Auditor General new and enhanced tools to do their job.

SB 1394 would have made a difference. Charter reform will have to wait now.  And that’s too bad.

State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix) is a member of the Senate Education Committee. She was elected to the Arizona Legislature in 2010.

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