The Arizona Supreme Court has declined to review a lower court’s ruling that the statutory funding scheme for charter schools violates that state’s constitution. The case, Craven v. Huppenthal, was filed by a group of parents of charter school students who complained that the state provides less funding to charter schools than it does to traditional public schools. The parents argued that the scheme violated the state’s Equal Protection and General and Uniform clauses.
A trial court had ruled against the parents on summary judgment. The court applied a rational basis of review – the most lenient – to the legislature’s funding scheme. According to the court, because “charter and [public] schools are different, the legislature may fund them differently.”
On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that it was unnecessary to determine what level of scrutiny applied to the legislature’s funding decisions because the parents’ claims failed as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals explained that charter schools were established in that state in 1994 as “alternatives to public schools,” and as such, they were subject to different statutory regulations and entitlements. In Arizona, both traditional public schools and charter schools received the same base funding, though traditional public schools were eligible to receive additional funding through budget overrides and bonds – while charter schools were not. On the other hand, charter schools had access to alternative state and private funding sources.
The Arizona Court of Appeals then went on to rule against the parents on both of their claims. First, the court held that the state’s General and Uniform clause only applied to the state’s obligation to maintain an adequate public school system. Because the charter school parents never alleged that their children were receiving an inadequate education – in fact, the parents alleged just the opposite (i.e., that their children were receiving a high quality education in the charter schools) – there was no claim under the General and Uniform clause. Second, the court reasoned that the parents’ Equal Protection claim failed as a matter of law because their children’s attendance at charter schools was completely voluntary. According to the court, all public school children in the state had the same rights and “[at] any time, they may choose to attend district schools that receive the funding they deem more desirable.”