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Arizona charter school legislation likely dead after advancement fails

PHOENIX — A bill imposing new rules on Arizona charter schools is likely dead for the year after House Speaker Rusty Bowers declined to move it forward, saying it doesn’t have enough support to pass.

The legislation was prompted by growing public scrutiny of charter schools, their finances and their owners. News reports have highlighted instances of charter operators enriching themselves, falling short academically or failing financially.

Bowers, a Mesa Republican, declined to assign the legislation to the Senate on Monday, telling media the bill “was intended to be a meaningful, bipartisan bill to increase accountability and transparency in charter schools,” but “failed to achieve those goals.”

He walked that back Monday night, issuing a statement blaming Democrats who he said “would rather see the charter school model fail than be improved.”

“Members of both parties now feel the bill either goes too far or not far enough,” Bowers said in his statement. “Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t have the votes to pass in the House because partisan gamesmanship is more important to some than improved accountability.”

Sen. David Bradley of Tucson, the Senate Democratic leader, said Democrats “have embraced charter schools” and suggested Bowers wants to blame partisan gamesmanship instead of expanding accountability.

“We have consistently asked for the same thing that is expected of any entity that utilizes public dollars: be accountable, be transparent and demonstrate that all your decisions are in the best interest of the children that charter schools serve,” Bradley said.

Republicans in the Senate approved the bill earlier this month despite many expressing deep misgivings about extending some of the regulations of public schools to charter schools, which they said were intended to maintain flexibility from red tape. Charters are privately run schools funded with state education dollars. They have grown precipitously over the past two decades.

Democrats said the legislation was written by the charter industry and gives the false impression that lawmakers are resolving problems with charter schools. They said it would do little to prevent charter owners from enriching themselves with public money intended to educate children.

The legislation by Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee would limit the number of family members who can serve on a charter board and require the disclosure of contracts with companies owned by board members. It also would give the attorney general more authority to investigate questionable purchasing decisions.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to put additional restrictions into the legislation, including a ban on new for-profit charters and a limit on the amount of money that can go to a so-called charter management organization. Critics say some charter operators have issued no-bid management contracts to companies they own, allowing them to hide spending details from public view.

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