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Utah oversight of charter schools 'unclear,' has gaps in accountability, audit finds

A new state audit finds that Utah's governance system over charter schools is unclear and creates gaps in credibility.

A new state audit finds that Utah's governance system over charter schools is unclear and creates gaps in credibility. (Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's governance system for charter schools is unclear and creates gaps in accountability, a new audit has concluded.

Traditional public schools and charter public schools exist within the same system under the elected body of the Utah State Board of Education. But the governor-appointed State Charter School Board is the authorizer of the bulk of the state's 135 charter schools, meaning that board oversees existing charter schools and decides who can open new ones.

The State Board of Education, however, has the power to deny a charter school application, even if the other board has approved it.

Out of 45 states with charter school programs, Utah is the only state that doesn't require schools to renew their contracts after a certain period of time — meaning there's a missed opportunity to ensure standards are being met, Ryan Thelin, lead auditor of the review ordered by the Legislature, told legislative leaders Tuesday during an interim committee meeting.

Because they answer to two separate boards, charter schools face confusing accountability lines, the audit states. Funding is also an issue with two governing boards, Thelin said.

The result?

"Charter schools have inconsistent performance," he said.

Many charter high schools — 21% — stand in the top 10% of high schools in the state in their performance, compared to 6% of traditional public schools, he said. Meanwhile, 15% of charter high schools rank in the bottom 10% of schools compared to 8% of noncharter schools.

In elementary schools, 18% of charter schools sit in the bottom 10% compared to 9% of traditional public schools. There is no difference between charter schools and traditional elementary schools in the top 10% for performance, according to the audit.

Each charter school is governed by its own board, which runs like a school district. But there aren't standards or guidelines that set qualifications or training requirements for board members across the state's charter schools, Thelin said.

Auditors recommend three options for improving the governance system:

  1. Designating the State Charter School Board as a hybrid local education agency in statute and providing it specific authority.
  2. Establishing the State Charter School Board as an independent government entity without ties to the Utah State Board of Education.
  3. Defining the State Charter School Board as a state agency within Utah State Board of Education's supervision.

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, emphasized the need for charter school boards to follow consistent standards.

"So now we have boards that can control the district that controls everything from pay, to janitorial, to whatever, and they can be skilled if they want to, or they don't have to be. They don't have to have expertise on their board to run a whole district if they choose not to, and the board changes often, so the direction of the board changes with the atmosphere of the people that are there," Mayne said.

She called charter renewal requirements a good idea, "because if they're not doing their mission statement, then they're not adhering to the parents, that that's why they brought the children there."

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, noted that most people want to be able to take concerns to someone who is accountable to them, such as an elected board.

DeLaina Tonks, State Charter School Board chairwoman, said the board would support a standardized renewal process to improve accountability.

While most of the 123 schools the board oversees are fiscally responsible, Tonks said, "We continue to seek ways to help the handful of struggling schools that would benefit from our targeted interventions."

She said some of the options proposed by auditors for streamlining charter school governance could take more resources than the board currently has.

"There are pros and cons to each one, and they're all workable as long as we understand which options require which resources to be able to implement," Tonks said.

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Ashley Imlay covers state politics and breaking news for A lifelong Utahn, Ashley has also worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and is a graduate of Dixie State University.


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