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Lawmakers, educators begin discussing changes to Utah's charter school funding system

The Charter School Funding Task Force met for the first time Wednesday to consider changes to the controversial way charters are funded in the state.
The Charter School Funding Task Force met for the first time Wednesday to consider changes to the controversial way charters are funded in the state.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A discussion between lawmakers and education leaders about how best to fund charter schools boiled down to a question of purpose: Why does Utah have charter schools?

The Charter School Funding Task Force met for the first time Wednesday to consider how the answer to that question will influence proposed changes to the controversial way charters are funded in the state.

"We need to step back and figure out what we're trying to accomplish here," said Howard Headlee, a member of the task force and the State Charter School Board. "The paths that are more well established are the ones we tend to go down, and we appear, today even, to be moving in that direction without stepping back and saying, 'What are we trying to do? What are we trying to accomplish?'"

Charter schools are public schools that are held to the same academic standard as others, but they often use unique methods of teaching and have a specialized focus, such as science or the arts. Charter enrollment has grown by tens of thousands in the past 10 years, with more than 100 charters currently in operation throughout the state.

But funding the growth has been a challenge, especially since charters do not have taxing authority. Instead, school districts are required to set aside one-fourth of their property tax revenues to accommodate charter schools throughout the state.

This has created tension between school districts, which must give up a large portion of their income, and charter schools, which have to rely on outside funding sources.

"The bottom line to remember here is that charter schools can't levy property taxes, so what you're trying to figure out is how to make up for that revenue by either allocating some school district revenue or using state funding to get there," said policy analyst Allyson Goldstein. "As charter school enrollment has grown dramatically, this gets more and more expensive, both for the school districts and for the state."

The Charter School Funding Task Force was formed this year with the passage of HB444, which calls on a combination of legislators and educators to make recommendations on how best to limit charter enrollment, the amount of district revenues school districts must provide for charters, how to distribute those funds and other issues.

The task force is expected to make recommendations to the Education Interim Committee by Nov. 30.

"This is a good opportunity for us to try to arrive at a permanent solution," said the task force's co-chairman, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

The group is expected to consider various options, including whether funds are distributed effectively, whether the amount spent on administration is appropriate, and whether limits on enrollment should be tied to the money schools receive or other factors.

Utah's method of funding students based on seat time could be revised, giving schools more flexibility than what's currently offered through the 180-day, 990-hour school year.

The task force is also expected to weigh in on a proposal to create a new property tax specifically for funding charter schools, independent of districts. The tax is being proposed by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who is expected to introduce it in the coming legislative session.

Stephenson, however, questioned whether creating a new tax would solve the problem.

"I believe that charter school students have already been funded by taxpayers," he said. "Why should we stick it to taxpayers one more time in order to double fund students that are already completely funded to create peace between charter schools and the district (schools)?"

Headlee said charter schools should continue to be a place for experimental and innovative learning practices, and that whatever funding model is decided on should allow for instructional leeway.

"The big question that you have to think about as we apply that to every policy decision that we make here and in the Legislature (is): Why did we create charter schools in the first place? Is it a parallel system of education to create choice and competition, or are they (research and development) labs where we're exploring better ways to do things?" Headlee said.

"I believe that the primary objective is that they were R&D labs, that we should find ways to fund them. We should keep them separate and innovative, and we really need to focus on the flexibility," he said.

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