Charter’s $30m payout sparks political backlash

Charter’s $30m payout sparks political backlash

(Ariz.) Charter schools and policies supporting parental choice may have no greater champions than the Republican leadership in the Arizona state house, but a recent school real estate deal could test that commitment.

In a quiet move made earlier this month that has sparked headlines, a state oversight board voted unanimously to approve the transfer of a Phoenix area charter school from a for-profit corporation to a non-profit entity.

The action triggered a windfall profit of up to $30 million in tax money to the owner of the dispensing company, who also happens to be a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, according to published reports.

Eddie Farnsworth, R-Chandler, told the Arizona Republic last week that he deserved the profit-taking because he had invested millions of dollars in launching the charter school twenty years ago.

“I make no apologies for being successful,” he told reporters.

Farnsworth–an attorney and a one-time staff member to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah–is also on the ballot in November, running for a seat in the state Senate.

Although the move has raised eyebrows among his GOP colleagues, few if any have criticized his action publicly. That said, Gov. Doug Ducey–who is locked in a dead-heat in his election bid with his Democratic challenger, reversed gears shortly after the Farnsworth deal became public, and endorsed a package of bills that would impose more accountability on charter schools and new restrictions on charter operators for profit-taking at public expense.

“Republicans ignore all the evidence of a problem while joining hands and chanting, “school choice, school choice, school choice,” wrote Republic columnist Laurie Roberts last week. “Indeed it is a choice to focus only on charter school successes—and there are certainly some—while ignoring problems rampant in the charter school industry.”

The Farnsworth controversy comes at a bad time for Republicans, who have been locked in an intense public relations battle with Arizona teachers.

After giving in last spring on educator demands for higher wages and more money overall for schools, GOP incumbents all over the state are facing candidates that are either teachers themselves or tied to the public school system.

Ducey himself included, who is matched in the general election against Democrat David Garcia, an associate professor of education at Arizona State.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are also trying to fight off a referendum on the state’s landmark expansion of the school voucher program. The proposal, which was pushed through in 2017, offers state-supported K-12 scholarships to all 1.1 million students in the public schools by 2022.

The voucher program helped ignite teacher unrest earlier this year and is expected to drive Democratic turnout in November.

If that wasn’t enough, teachers and their supporters are still smarting over an August ruling by the state supreme court that removed a tax increase from the ballot which would have generated almost $700 million a year for education.

The Invest in Education Act, which came directly out of the teacher strikes this spring, drew more than enough support in the petition drive to make the fall ballot and would have raised income taxes on residents earning more than $250,000 a year. But the court invalidated the measure because the proposition’s wording could have confused voters over the magnitude of the tax increase.

“I am done waiting,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said at a rally earlier this summer. “I’ve waited ten years. Every child in the state should be able to walk out of their house and go to a great public school.”

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