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Charter school funding equity plan gets approval from House committee

FILE — Charter school students gather in the Capitol Rotunda to celebrate school choice and discuss legislation pertinent to Utah’s charter schools in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. "UAPCS" stands for Utah Association of Public Charter Schools
FILE — Charter school students gather in the Capitol Rotunda to celebrate school choice and discuss legislation pertinent to Utah’s charter schools in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. "UAPCS" stands for Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers advanced a proposal Monday they say will improve equity between charter schools and district schools.

The move would provide charters an additional $14 million this year, which would increase to $21 million next year, to put them on more equal footing with district schools for per-pupil funding.

"It's a bill about basic equity between charters and districts, because they're both public schools," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. "It brings greater transparency to where the money is actually going."

Since charter schools do not have taxing authority, 25 percent of the property tax revenue earned by school districts goes to charters. But SB38, which passed in a unanimous vote by the House Education Committee, would create a new tax levy specifically for charter schools so districts no longer have to divert funding for charters.

That new tax levy would produce the same amount of revenue for charter schools as before, and it would leave school districts with the same amount they've historically been able to spend. And it wouldn't mean a property tax increase for taxpayers.

"The amount being collected is going to be exactly the same as what it is," Eliason said. "This bill is revenue neutral."

Lawmakers hope the changes will reduce friction between charters and districts that has existed because of funding differences.

The bill, now in its fifth iteration, is largely the result of a task force that was commissioned last year to explore better ways to fund charter schools. The task force was made up of lawmakers and education leaders, who presented their recommendations to the Legislature late last year.

As one of those recommendations, SB38 allocates funding to charters that has historically been given to district schools under the state guarantee, which provides a funding boost to schools in areas where tax effort is high but revenues are low. Because charters weren't included in that calculation, they were being shorted about $500 per student, according to State Charter School Board Chairman Howard Headlee.

That funding will be made up through the bill.

"We believe it gets us to equity in time," Headlee said.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, also voiced his support for the bill.

"This has really been a team effort to bring all the parties together and make sure that we can craft a policy that will hopefully end all of the animosity," Van Tassell said.

Wasatch County School District Superintendent Terry Shoemaker, who spoke on behalf of the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association, said he believes districts will be supportive of SB38 in its current form.

"We've been working with the sponsors very carefully to make sure that we have elements in this bill that make sense to us," Shoemaker said. "I'm feeling very comfortable with where this is going at this time."

Other lawmakers were also hopeful that adding a separate tax levy will increase transparency to taxpayers by showing them what portion of their money goes to charter schools and what portion goes to school districts.

"I think it's been a terrible thing that we've pushed responsibility for funding charter schools to the local school districts," said Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain. "We need to do that at the state. We need to take the full hit for that, make sure we're responsible, that we're not forcing someone else to do our dirty work for us. I love that about this."

The bill now awaits final approval on the House floor, as well as approval from the Senate on recent amendments.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen