School districts are quietly lobbying the State Board of Education to place a moratorium on new charter schools, at least until the economy rebounds.
The board hasn't seriously weighed the matter. And whether it could take such action without legislative approval is unclear.
"It's not on the agenda now, and we're not recommending that the board take action," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education.
But school district budget officers argue the time is ripe for a thorough review of charter schools, their finances and academic performance.
Schools stand to lose millions this year to budget cuts, said D'Lynn Poll, chief of finances at Morgan School District. "It's time we examine whether charter schools have lived up to their promise. I think there's growing realization that they're more expensive to run than public schools."
The moratorium is a legislative priority this year for Utah's district budget officers, said Poll.
Brian Allen, chairman of Utah's State Charter School Board, disputes claims that charter schools are more costly.
Allen doesn't blame the districts for crying foul, noting "times are hard for everybody," but says his board won't endorse a moratorium. He suspects district officials are "posturing" leading up to the legislative session where lawmakers may revisit a law requiring school districts to share some of their property tax dollars with charter schools.
Districts complain the law burdens them with hiking taxes to cover the costs of schools for which they aren't accountable.
Though publicly funded, charter schools operate autonomously from districts under a specific mission unique to each school. Because their boards are not elected to represent geographic boundaries, they can't levy taxes.
Lawmakers have scrambled to cover charter school growth since their creation in Utah 10 years ago.
Allen favors a compromise with the districts: get the state to levy a small property tax to fund charter schools and restore $36 million in district money to the districts.
Though legally possible, the idea is politically unfeasible, said House Budget Chairman Rep. Ron Bigelow. "Any proposal that would cost the state money has an uphill battle."
The West Valley Republican is open to changing the funding formula, but only if "charters and the districts come to some consensus."
With 66 schools serving 27,000 students, the charter system rivals the size of districts in Salt Lake, Provo and Washington counties. Newly approved schools and expansions will bring charter school enrollment to 40,000 in 2010-11.