The performance of Utah’s charter schools has been a ‘grave disappointment,’ according to the Republican lawmaker who created them

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Sen. Howard A. Stephenson (R-Draper) speaks on SB 72 during the morning session at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday February 4, 2015.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, sponsor of the laws that launched charter schools in Utah, said Tuesday that the alternative schools have fallen short of their mission to improve education through innovation and competition.

The Draper Republican said he’s looking for a “fresh start” for charter schools, as their average performance on statewide tests is no better than that of their school district counterparts.

“I don’t want to discount the fact that many, many students have found success in these schools of choice but on average, we have not seen that occur,” Stephenson said. “That has been a grave disappointment for me as the sponsor of that [original] legislation.”

Stephenson was presenting his bill, SB173, to members of the Senate Education Committee. The bill would change the membership requirements of the State Charter School Board to include someone with expertise in classroom technology and individualized learning.

That is a substitute version of SB173. Originally, Stephenson wanted to prohibit any charter school employee or governing board member from serving on the State Charter School Board, which oversees the creation and operations of the vast majority of Utah charters.


Changes the membership of the Utah State Charter School board to include an individual with expertise in digital teaching and learning. - Read full text

Current Status:

Filed Law Introduced in Senate Senate Committee Senate passage House Committee House passage Governor's OK

Charter board members are appointed by the governor and traditionally serve a maximum of two, four-year terms. The seven-member panel is currently defined in law as having two members with expertise in finance or small business management, two members nominated by the Utah Board of Education, and three members nominated by Utah’s charter school associations.

Stephenson’s original bill would have affected three charter board members, particularly DeLaina Tonks and Cynthia Phillips, who are currently in their first terms and would have been ineligible for continued service.

Phillips testified in committee, thanking Stephenson for his support of charter schools over the years and his revisions to SB173. But she added that the new language is potentially restrictive as personalized learning methods become commonplace in schools.

“It is my opinion that digital teaching and learning will become, and already has become in some sectors, pervasive,” she said. “I would wonder if you might not consider language that requires a member that has experience in innovative pedagogy.”

Tonks did not testify, and declined to comment to The Tribune after the hearing. Instead, she directed questions to Jennifer Lambert, the charter board’s executive director and spokeswoman.

Lambert said the State Charter School Board has not taken a formal position on the substitute language in SB173.

“It’s an improvement over the original,” she said.

Stephenson said it was not his intent to kick anyone off the State Charter School Board.

“I’m not aware of who’s term is up when,” he said. “I didn't mean any offense to anyone and I want to publicly apologize for any offense that was received.”

Members of the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously for the substitute version of SB173. The bill would reduce the number of charter board members with a financial or small business background from two to one in order to create a seat for the classroom technology advocate.

Lambert said one of the board’s two financial representatives is currently in his second term, so Stephenson’s new bill would fill an otherwise open seat.

Lawmakers are also considering a House bill this year that would repeal the Utah Board of Education’s power to approve or deny new charter school applications. Under that bill, HB313, the State Charter School Board would have sole discretion to authorize new charters, subject to rules and minimum standards established by the Utah Board of Education.