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Malodorous deals

Schools, companies sidestep rules

First Published Mar 01 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 01 2014 01:01 am

There is so much wrong with the way some Utah charter and district schools are siphoning tax money and their responsibility to educate children to private online providers, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Utah charter schools — public schools organized and run by individuals or nonprofit organizations and overseen by a state board — are contracting with two online course providers in a malodorous deal to boost school enrollment and taxpayer funding, a state audit shows.

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The more students a charter school enrolls, the more money it gets from the state. So some schools have allowed private companies Harmony Educational Services and My Tech High Inc. to recruit students, offering parents incentives including software, books, even computers, paid for with taxpayer money.

It’s mind-boggling that this sweetheart deal has gone undetected by the Utah Charter School Board, but, incredibly, the two companies have been paid $10.5 million in taxpayer money to recruit and manage the education of these Utah children, which often means they take just a few classes online.

Once the children’s names show up on the school’s rolls, the school pays little attention to their progress, leaving their supervision to the private companies. In many cases, the audit shows, schools are either ignoring rules or there are no rules.

In an interesting twist, Harmony was founded by Robert Muhlestein, a former state senator.

Some egregious findings in the audit, reported by The Tribune:

• Some schools don’t verify that teachers in the private online programs have Utah licenses and have passed background checks, or that classes follow Utah’s core curriculum standards.

• At least one school and its contractor are getting state money for teaching home-school courses, which do not qualify for funding.

• Some charter schools are providing online classes when the charters that outline their responsibilities and limitations don’t say they can.

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• Some schools did not follow state procurement laws, which the state office has to report to the attorney general’s office for investigation.

Utah has 90 charter schools, and 15 of them, along with 23 of the state’s 41 school districts have online or distance-learning programs.

The State Board of Education and the charter board have a lot of work to do to clean up this mess. They owe it to Utah children to get busy.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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