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11/4/2013 8:22:00 AM
Charter and district schools... What's the difference?: Yavapai County school superintendent explains
Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

Patrick Whitehurst
Special to the Tribune

On the surface, district schools and charter schools may seem worlds apart, but they are more alike than some might think.

Both, for example, are funded by federal and state tax dollars, explained Tim Carter, Yavapai County school superintendent. Both types are public schools.

District schools, however, get additional funding from local tax dollars via secondary property taxes, while charters use private dollars generated by the school's sponsoring body.

"You have primary and secondary tax rates. Every property, basically, except in rare situations, should have a primary tax assessment," Carter said.

Secondary tax rates come into play when there are voter-approved bonds and overrides, he said.

There are currently 28 charters schools in Yavapai County. There are 25 kindergarten through grade 12 public school districts in the county. Carter's office operates the Yavapai County Education Service Agency (YCESA), which regulates elections, finances and more for schools in the county.

"We are not a regulatory agency. We're a fiscal agent. We do all of their elections. There are 162 things in statute that county school superintendents, or the ESA, has to do. Most of those are financial, but a lot of them are instructional as well," Carter said. "We have zero jurisdiction of any kind over charter schools."

When it comes to sports and extra-curricular activities, Carter cited "significant differences."

"District schools tend to be more comprehensive.

They try to have as many academic programs, as many electives, as they can. They try to have as many activities as they can, especially those kids and parents say they want. They try to be all things to all people. Personnel, facilities and funding can limit those things," Carter said.

Charter schools, he said, stay closer to the edicts set forth in their charters.

"Their focus is different. If their charter says they're going to be an equestrian-based program, then basically everything they do should be focused around some equestrian aspect. Some charters do have athletic programs," Carter said.

Administration and boards

Charter schools are typically created by community organizations, parents and teachers, and for-profit organizations. It is rare for a charter school to be affiliated with a school district, Carter said.

Like district schools, charter schools also use boards, which are selected based on the school's charter document, and normally serve in an advisory capacity.

District school governing boards are based on state statutes and required to perform certain functions, such as submitting an annual budget.

"They are a political subdivision of the state of Arizona. They only have the power that the state of Arizona gives them," Carter said.

Charter schools, he added, have to follow their charter first. The role of a charter board, he said, can vary.

"There has to be a governance structure named and approved in the charter," Carter said. "None of them are elected boards like districts have. In some cases, the director can almost serve as a one-person board. In some cases, it's the executive officers of whoever holds the charter, which might be four or five people."

Some charter boards, he added, can also make all the decisions for the charter school.

"In some cases, the charter operator is the charter holder, which means they have an advisory board. They can only advise, make recommendations and suggestions. In some cases, it's the corporate board. If the district sponsors a charter, the district board can function as the charter board. If a community college did that, the community college board can function in that capacity."

Neither district schools or charter schools charge admission for attendance, though fees can be charged for certain programs within the schools.

Education requirements

Both charter schools and district schools must adhere to federal laws and state education requirements.

States mandate certain curriculum, such as American history, and other classes; as well as other standards including credit totals.

Like district schools, charters utilize administrative staff and principals. Many times, charters refer to their school leader as a director.

Charter schools can often emphasize a particular focus in its curriculum, such as technology and science, while district schools work from a comprehensive curriculum, rather than a particular emphasis.

Students can apply to charter schools rather than be assigned to a school based on where they live like district schools, though areas with open enrollment are also available. The quad-city area, for examples, works on an open enrollment system.

Both district and charter schools administer AIMS tests. Success rates, however, vary between individual schools. AIMS testing will be phased out at the beginning of the next school year.

Since district schools are more comprehensive, their rate of success is controlled by several factors, including their instructional strategy and their student population. The academic focus of a charter and the students who enroll, however, are major factors in determining their success.

"When we first started charters in Arizona, a lot of them were for profit. They could put the money in their pocket. You operated it like a business. Today those are very, very rare. We only have a handful of them left in the state," Carter said. "Today, if you were applying for a charter, it would not be a for profit. It would be a nonprofit entity."

For information on local charter and district schools, visit the county education website at

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2013
Article comment by: John Stuczynski

With so few schools in Y avpai Couinty, why do we need 3 school districts? That is two school district to many. Consolidate and save a ton of money. Just how much money? I do not know but with school administrators being paid rediculous sala ries, my guess would be 2 to 3 million dollars per year. That could get a lot of things done in this county.

Posted: Monday, November 4, 2013
Article comment by: Tori Kendall

Just an addition…

In Arizona, charters get $1600 more per pupil. It was originally designed to offset for facility costs because district schools had the School Facilities Board, BUT the SFB no longer exists. So the playing field is now uneven the other way.

They also receive an extra fiscal incentive for keeping enrollment low. I believe it is $600 per student. This is money that districts do not get.

Worth nothing.

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