Ducey says new charter school loan program details coming

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

 Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday that his plan to use state cash to back loans taken out by charter schools is still being polished, despite his budget including $24 million for the plan.

Ducey said he expects to outline details of how his Arizona Public School Achievement District will work soon. That new entity and a special fund to pay for it was included in the budget he signed last week using money from a fund for high-achieving schools.

Ducey brushed off concerns that using state money to fund the expansion of privately owned charter schools might violate the Arizona Constitution's prohibition on gifts of public monies.

The budget calls for Ducey to provide details of the plan to a joint committee of the House and Senate charged with spending oversight, and then submit legislation when the general outline is approved. There's no timeline attached.

Ducey said he wanted the new district in the budget despite the lack of details because there's a sense of urgency to give children educational opportunities.

"We've moved quickly on ideas that are good and make sense to the voters," he said. "That's the opportunity that we want to provide through this legislation. That's what we've done with the budget and that's what you'll see in the Arizona Public School Achievement District."

With a state budget signed last week, Ducey's proposal will either need to roll out before the Legislature finishes its yearly session in just weeks, wait for next year, or call a special session.

One of Ducey's major campaign slogans was to "fund the wait lists," a reference to top performing traditional and charter schools with long lists of students wanting to enroll.

In his state of the state address in January, he said he wanted to tap into an estimated 400,000 empty classroom seats to help those schools expand. The special district and fund he set up in the budget is designed to allow private charter schools to get lower interest rates on loans by using the state's credit for backing.

How that would work hasn't been explained. But the idea has raised serious constitutional questions, said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, who is an attorney.

"We haven't seen the actual details of it because it hasn't been released yet. But once those details come out, based on what the concept of the plan is, I think there's definitely going to be some sort of legal challenge to it," Quezada said. "I don't see this going into effect before there are court hearings and challenges to it."

The state Constitution bars gifts of public funds to private entities, and taking either public school buildings or using the state's credit to back private charters could be problematic.

Ducey said administration and private attorneys are working on legislation detailing the schools plan to ensure it meets legal muster.

"We want to get it right," Ducey said. "As I've said, in our administration we're going to follow the law, and any policy that we move forward will fall well within the law and the Arizona Constitution."

But Quezada criticized the governor for putting the money in the budget before providing details of the proposal. Besides this year's $24 million, Ducey proposes adding $21 million to the fund next year.

"I wish I could reserve $45 million over the next couple of years and just release details of the plan later," he said. "Set aside $45 million, get the majority of Legislature to approve that. Must be nice."

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