SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers paved the way Thursday for two public online charter schools, Utah Virtual Academy and Utah Connections Academy, to substantially increase their enrollment caps this school year.

The Legislature, meeting in its sixth special session this year, gave unanimous approval to HB6012, which also gives flexibility to the Utah State Board of Education to use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Funding and other state education money to cover any difference from what has already been appropriated to facilitate the enrollment boost.

Utah Virtual Academy’s enrollment cap increases to 3,550, an increase of 1,500 students while Utah Connections Academy’s enrollment cap increases by 1,000 students over its current maximum of 1,250 students.

The changes are estimated to cost about $8 million.

Both schools reached enrollment caps earlier this summer and had thousands of families on waiting lists as parents sought options amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned raising enrollments — and the funding — of two online charter schools that had not performed well academically compared to other schools that also have online options.

In recent years, both schools have been identified for school turnaround, a status designed for the lowest-performing schools in the state. Such schools are provided additional resources with the expectation they improve academic achievement within three years or face other actions deemed appropriate by the State School Board.

Earlier this week, Brian Maxwell, board chairman of Utah Virtual Academy, noted that the school had exited turnaround, and because of lessons learned from education consultants, it was better prepared to handle an influx in students.

Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, sponsor of HB6012, said the Utah State Charter School Board recommended increased enrollment for both schools for this school year only. The proposal was also supported by the State School Board.

“I do know there was some discussion around how that would look. I would say we are in unique times and parents are looking for options. I believe the charter board felt this would be a great additional option for parents for this unique circumstance,” Rep. Jefferson Moss said.

In Senate debate, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, questioned why online charter schools should receive the same level of per-pupil funding as schools that have a physical presence.

Republican senators argued that was a debate for another day.

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“This is a one-time adjustment that we’re making. In Utah, we’ve always tried to make sure we’re sending the money to follow the student to meet the needs of our schools,” said Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

The legislation also allows the board to conduct an enrollment snapshot in early September and possibly other times to better gauge how enrollment has changed as parents have made different choices for their children’s education.

Ordinarily, the state conducts an Oct. 1 head count. Enrollment drives state school funding formulas.

Millner said the October count will remain the baseline for state and federal purposes and growth estimates.

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