Arizona’s charter schools are indeed a success story for our state. Our leaders should be applauded for having the vision to carefully create a climate in which school choice benefits so many through specialized learning, improved test scores, and education options.
As the curriculum director of Benjamin Franklin Charter School, I take pride in the role our school has played in educating Arizona’s children for the past 24 years. We now serve 3,000 students, and we have a 96 percent graduation rate. Our test scores are well above the state average. Great effort is taken to provide a quality education to our students, and Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, is heavily involved in that endeavor.
For these reasons and more, I must strongly object to the recent series of articles and editorials The Arizona Republic has launched assailing charter schools, school choice, and the integrity of our school’s president and founder, Mr. Farnsworth. I have worked with Mr. Farnsworth for 20 years and can personally attest to his commitment to education.
The Republic accuses him of benefiting from his dual role as a lawmaker and charter school operator, ignoring the fact that the enabling legislation for charter schools was passed in 1994, years before Mr. Farnsworth took office. In fact, he has cast votes against charter schools during his tenure.
The 1994 original legislation created a new, competitive education model by authorizing the state to contract with private companies (both for-profit and nonprofit) to provide public education services. Benjamin Franklin was originally founded as for-profit, but changes in the market make a better case to become a nonprofit. About 95 percent of the charter schools are. Grand Canyon University is making this change, too.
This transition is in the best interest of our schools. It alleviates property tax and income tax burdens, as is the case for other charter and district schools. Nonprofit status provides lower financing costs for future buildings. It also creates a new independent board of directors.
The Republic took issue because these new board members are among Mr. Farnsworth’s circle of friends. These are ethical, experienced, and committed individuals. One of the board members not only has business experience but is also a long-time BFCS parent. Another has worked in government. While still another is the best procurement lawyer in the state. Additionally, the school is also exploring the option of expanding its membership with individuals from the business or education worlds.
The Republic also took issue with the fact that Mr. Farnsworth is making a profit during this transition, but the $30 million figure is outrageously inflated, and the true number will not be known until additional appraisals and costs are factored in. The Republic failed to note that for nearly 20 years, Mr. Farnsworth was personally guaranteeing loans and leases because we did not have the taxpayers to fall back on as district schools do. However, the school will be making a profit just as the suppliers of buses, curriculum, books, and contractors of buildings do with public schools.
The Republic wrote that taxpayers will effectively have paid twice for our schools after the nonprofit transition. Actually, they did not even pay once! The state does not allow charters to ask taxpayers to pay for buildings. The buildings were purchased through private sector financing, and the taxpayers have no liability for the debt associated with them. Thankfully, Mr. Farnsworth was willing to assume that risk. Had he not, countless students would have missed out on the unique, quality education Benjamin Franklin provides.
Our transfer to a nonprofit is being done legally, transparently, responsibly, and with an eye to the future to ensure we have the right approach that continues to yield AzMERIT test scores exceeding the state average. In fact, our students test about 20 percentage points higher on average.
This is not to say there is not room for improvements in the way our state does business not only for charter operators who legally make profits from contracts with Arizona, but also for any private sector business contracting with the state for things such as freeways, higher education, or health care. There have been numerous abuses in the K-12 education arena such as those in Scottsdale and Higley.
Because so much concern has been expressed regarding charter school operators legally making a profit from contracts with the state, Mr. Farnsworth said he is willing to join with anyone, including state leaders and friends from both sides of the aisle in January, for a comprehensive look and potential legislation, retaining laws and practices that work and reforming where we must. We welcome potential reform in all areas of state procurement.
Shalisa Arnold is the curriculum director of Benjamin Franklin Charter School.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.