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Updated Mar 24, 2014 - 7:16 pm

Deal on charter schools holding back budget talks

PHOENIX -- A battle over public school districts that convert schools into charters to get more funding stalled Arizona budget talks for several hours Monday.

The state House of Representatives was scheduled to debate the Senate-approved budget, but legislators instead spent most of the day negotiating several points of discontent.

Republicans say one of the main issues is a provision in the budget that would retroactively ban school districts from converting public schools into charter schools. Charter schools get more funding per student. District charter schools are also eligible for bonds and overrides, while state charter schools are not. Overall, they receive more funding than regular public schools and state-sponsored charter schools.

Some Republicans say school districts take advantage of their ability to convert regular schools into charters for the sole purpose of getting more funding. They call it a loophole and say it is necessary to end the practice because it costs the state too much money. Estimates put that figure at $150 million over the next three years.

Democrats say a last-minute bill introduced by Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, is a political ploy to push the few Republicans who oppose his budget proposal to vote in favor it.

Biggs introduced Senate Bill 1494 just minutes before the House was scheduled to begin debate on the budget. The bill would require school districts to establish an independent board that would run a district charter school and would ban district charter schools from accessing bonds and overrides.

"This is taking political gamesmanship to a new level," said Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix.

Biggs said public school districts are draining the general fund by constantly converting their schools into charters.

"The position being, if you want to be a true charter school, then be a true charter school and act instead of trying to reap all the benefits of property taxes," Biggs said.

District charter school proponents say they continually outperform not just regular public schools but state-sponsored charter schools as well. They say they use the extra funds judiciously.

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