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Utah’s highest-scoring charter schools don’t outsource administration

First Published      Last Updated Aug 02 2016 05:21 pm

Utah education » Highest-scoring charter schools rely on internal staffing for operations, say they prefer to “handle things in-house.”

Last spring, nine out of every 10 students at the Utah County Academy of Science (UCAS) met grade-level benchmarks on the science portion of SAGE, Utah's year-end test for public-school students.

That success rate was the highest among Utah's charter schools, followed by Success Academy, InTech Collegiate High School and the Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (NUAMES).

Those four schools share a number of similarities beyond their exemplary test scores. They're part of a family of Utah early-college high schools that, while operating as independent charter schools, were created through partnerships with traditional school districts and Utah's public universities to form a dual track to a high school diploma and an associate degree.

They also rely on internal staffing for school operations instead of outsourcing to private management companies — a practice that is common among Utah's charter schools.

"We want to make sure that we do handle things in-house," UCAS Principal Anna Trevino said. "We're all very, very capable of handling the administrative duties at the schools and we don't necessarily need someone else telling us what to do."

An analysis of charter school expense reports by The Salt Lake Tribune found that a handful of Utah companies are paid millions in taxpayer dollars each year to assume administrative functions.

The companies range from financial consultants who provide bookkeeping and human resource services, to comprehensive management firms that hire school staff, select classroom curricula and oversee day-to-day operations.

In an op-ed published in The Tribune on Friday, Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, defended those contractual partnerships as an innovative model that maximizes public school funds.

"Interestingly," he wrote, "these schools are many of Utah's best performing charter schools."

As most Utah charter students are in elementary or middle school grades, comparisons can't be drawn from graduation rates, AP exams or ACT scores. But schools that outsource administration to private companies were less likely to score among the highest on SAGE.

Utah Connections Academy, Utah Virtual Academy and American Preparatory Academy are comprehensively managed by Maryland-based Connections Academy, Virginia-based K12 Management and Draper-based American Preparatory Schools, respectively.

All three schools scored below the state average on all three SAGE test subjects: science, math and English language arts.

Van Tassell said SAGE scores are an imperfect measure of school success, and charter schools are nationally competitive on other testing systems that aren't required to be reported to the state.

It is "unequivocal," he said, that American Preparatory Academy is among Utah's best schools.

"You look at the totality here and it's hard to imagine that all of these different variables don't point in a similar direction," he said.

Other schools that contract with Utah's largest charter companies shows mixed results on SAGE.

Academica West, a finance and consulting firm, serves only charter schools and charges between $350 and $400 per student.

Of the 17 schools that contracted with Academica West last year, six bested the state average on SAGE, five were below average and the remaining six were below-average on at least one subject.

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