Primer on public charter schools in Utah

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ST. GEORGE  In a recent press conference, Gov. Gary Herbert stated that his No. 1 focus going into this session of the Utah Legislature was going to be education and the funding of education. With the introduction of SB 38 to enact School Funding Amendments, a measure which would rectify the underfunding of charter schools as reported by a task force created by the Legislature last year, charter schools are in the spotlight. The bill has been approved by the Senate and passed to the House for consideration.

However, given the relatively young charter school movement in the state, the topic has never been far from the minds of Utah educators and parents alike. For many Utahns, there is still confusion regarding exactly how charter schools function in relation to public schools. One of the biggest misconceptions is that charter schools somehow operate outside of the laws and regulations to which public schools are subjected. However, according to information provided on the Utah State Office of Education website, this is not the case.

Charter schools are public schools open to all resident students. Tuition is not charged, and charter schools receive the majority of their funding from the state. Each charter school is an independent Local Education Agency, or LEA, — similar to a school district — which provides additional education choices to Utah students.

Charter schools in Utah: Almost two decades of offering a different choice

charter schools
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Charter schools began in Utah with the Legislature’s creation of the Centennial Charter Schools Task Force in 1997. The year following the task force, the Legislature passed the Utah Charter Schools Act during the 1998 General Session, authorizing a charter school pilot program. The pilot program included up to eight charter schools. The pilot status of charter schools was removed in 2001. Since then, charter schools have developed as a school choice component in Utah’s public education system.

Charter schools are public schools created by a group of parents, teachers or community leaders who see an educational need in their community and want to meet that need. To operate, charter founders must submit an application for approval by the State Charter School Board or the board of a school district. Like other public schools, charter schools serve students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The purpose of charters schools is to offer parents and students additional choices about where students attend school and the school’s curricular emphasis. They allow educators freedom to try new strategies to inspire students and to experiment with innovative ways of educating students. Also, charter schools allow individuals and organizations outside of the traditional education system to create and run public schools.

In fall 2014, Utah charter schools enrolled 61,435 students. Since the opening of the first group of charter schools in 1999, the year-over-year increase in students attending charter schools has ranged from 11.9 percent to 138.1 percent. Currently, charter schools enroll approximately 10 percent of all public school students in the state.

Approximately 100 charter schools have opened in Utah since 1999. In most cases, multiple schools have opened each school year. The highest number of charter school openings was in the fall of 2006, with 16 new schools opening.

Charter school laws and regulations

Charter schools are subject to the same laws and regulations as other public schools, including laws and regulations relating to the following:

  • Supporting students with disabilities, limited English proficiency, socio-economic disadvantages and other special needs
  • Religion in the schools; curriculum, admission policies and employment practices must all be nonsectarian
  • School fees and tuition
  • Health and safety
  • Civil rights
  • Annual reports
  • Prohibitions against advocacy of unlawful behavior
  • Screening of potential employees or volunteers for competency and fitness

The Utah Board of Education may waive any of its rules for a charter school or other public school if the school applies for a waiver and the Board of Education finds that the waiver would not violate applicable law or cause harm to students or the school.

Stock image, St. George News
Stock image, St. George News

A charter school is exempt from existing negotiated agreements relating to the hiring, employment and dismissal of employees. A charter school’s governing body may determine the level of compensation and the terms and conditions of employment for its employees. Charter schools may only employ educators who hold valid teaching certificates or who meet state board requirements for alternative certification or authorization.

A charter school is part of the public education system and must be open to all students without discrimination on the same basis as other public schools. If the number of students applying to enroll in a charter school exceeds the capacity of the school or of programs, classes or grade levels within the school, then those to be admitted are chosen at random from among the applicants, subject to certain preferences.

In Utah, by law all public schools granting high school credit are required to be accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools.

Charter schools have their own governing boards and most operate independently of local school districts. The Utah Board of Education and the State Charter School Board have oversight responsibility for charter schools and annually review the progress of every charter school.

Ed. note: SB 38 was amended and passed the Senate 17-11 with 1 not voting on Feb. 8. From Southern Utah, Sen. Steve Urquhart voted for the bill; Sens. Ralph Okerlund, David Hinkins and Evan Vickers voted against the bill. The bill passed to the House for consideration Feb. 9 and is currently in the House Education Committee.

Read the bill as amended here: SB 38 amended Jan 28 – School funding Amendments – Passed Senate 20160208

Some charter school options in Washington County

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