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Lifting enrollment caps on two online public charter schools would come at a price — an estimated $7.7 million

State School Board endorses lifting enrollment caps at Utah Virtual Academy and Utah Connections Academy amid surge in enrollment and burgeoning waiting lists

SHARE Lifting enrollment caps on two online public charter schools would come at a price — an estimated $7.7 million
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SALT LAKE CITY — It could cost $7.7 million in state funding to lift enrollment caps of two online public charter schools to accommodate up to 3,000 additional students, according to estimates shared with state lawmakers this week.

The schools, Utah Virtual Academy and Utah Connections Academy, asked the Utah State Charter School Board and Utah State Board of Education to support their effort to lift the caps amid a “significant surge” in enrollment and waiting lists that outstrip supply as parents seek alternatives to classroom instruction in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state charter board voted last week to support a temporary enrollment increase for the two schools for this school year only, and on Tuesday the Utah State Board of Education endorsed the proposal to lift the enrollment caps in the schools’ charter agreements.

The question now goes before the Utah Legislature.

Under the proposal, Utah Virtual Academy’s enrollment cap would increase to 3,550, an increase of 1,500 students.

Meanwhile, Utah Connections Academy’s enrollment cap would increase by 1,000 students. Its existing cap is 1,250 students.

On Thursday, the Utah Legislature will meet in special session and is expected to address policy and funding issues related to the proposal, which would authorize the State School Board to lift the enrollment caps to allow the schools to meet growing demand for online instruction.

Both schools offer remote learning as their sole form of instruction, which means students and educators don’t meet in schools, eliminating worries about disease transmission and the need to wear masks several hours a day.

“When this hit in the spring, as you can imagine as a virtual school, it was just business as usual, pretty much. There was no interruption. Parents want no interruptions. They want consistency throughout the school year,” Meghan Merideth, Utah Virtual Academy’s head of school, said in an earlier interview with the Deseret News.

As Utah families have considered their options for the 2020-21 school year, some have elected to shift to online learning offered by school districts and public charter schools, which were recently granted the flexibility to also offer remote instruction if it wasn’t already part of their operating agreements, or they attempted to enroll in Utah Connections Academy or Utah Virtual Academy.

Utah Connections Academy Principal Erin Taylor said the school’s wait list includes students who have been waiting since the school hit its enrollment cap.

“These are unprecedented times. They’re also unsettling times. We hear continually from families that are frustrated with being on our wait list,” which stymies their planning for the coming school year, Taylor said.

Taylor said school officials are confident in their request “because we are not forging new territory. The online virtual environment has been our model for decades. We feel quite settled in what we’re doing, and yet we’re constantly striving to do it better. We believe that our online model will serve these students and these families by bringing education into their home or where families feel safe, where they feel that their children are safe.”

Utah Virtual Academy reached its enrollment cap in July, which usually doesn’t happen until August or early September, Merideth said.

Another 700 students are fully prepared to gain admission to virtual school and there are 1,600-plus applications in process, she said.

Brian Maxwell, president of Utah Virtual Academy’s board of directors, told the State School Board Tuesday that the school was well prepared to meet the needs of an influx of new learners, thanks in part to lessons learned while the school was on turnaround status.

State and federal school turnaround programs identify and provide additional resources to low-performing schools with the expectation they improve their academic achievement.

“I just want to say thank you for the resources that were provided, and we have officially exited turnaround now. We’ll be taking those lessons that we learned along with our friends from the Utah Education Policy Center, who were so instrumental in improving the quality of instruction within our school,” he said

Now, the school seeks to be part of a solution as parents seek options to keep their families safe and to successfully continue their children’s education, he said.

“We recognize this as a temporary situation, we’re pretty confident that we can serve these kids in a way that’s meaningful to them so their educational progress won’t be hindered by the pandemic,” Maxwell said.

Utah Connections Academy’s high school program also was identified for school turnaround in the past decade.

Public charter schools primarily rely on state funding, aside from some private fundraising efforts, so lifting the caps will require the Utah Legislature to pass legislation that authorizes the State School Board to use certain funding to cover additional Charter School Local  Replacement costs for the enrollment increase. A mix of federal CARES Act funding and state balances could be used.

The Charter School Local Replacement Funding program provides funding to charter schools to assist in their building and operating needs. Unlike school districts, charter schools do not have bonding authority or the ability to levy property taxes. School enrollment drives state school funding formulas.

Deputy State Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones says the state will conduct a public school snapshot on Sept. 9 to determine the numbers of students who have transferred to other schools, online schools or are homeschooling. Enrollment drives the state school funding formula.

The state headcount is typically conducted on Oct. 1.