Tribune Editorial: Charter schools need state board's oversight

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Students at Riverton High School get a first-hand lesson in the legislative process as State Representative Dan McCay donates his time in Cliff Strieby's U.S. Government class. McCay figured students could benefit from his experience and learn about the upcoming legislative session which begins on Monday.

Another legislative session, and another attempt by charter schools to break the chains of their overlords.

Rep. Dan McCay has proposed House Bill 313, which, among other things, would take the approval of new charter schools away from the Utah Board of Education and let the independent state Charter School Board’s decisions stand without further approval.

Some Utah Board members are objecting, and one of them said it would be unconstitutional, as Utah’s constitution puts the state board in charge of public education.

Even if it’s legal, pulling back on the state board’s oversight isn’t warranted. That’s because the Charter School Board has functioned as an advocate for charters while also regulating them. It takes the state board to balance the needs of the whole state.

For instance, a couple of years ago the Charter School Board approved an application for a charter at West Ridge Academy, a private nonprofit facility for troubled youth. In doing so, the charter board heard and then dismissed the concerns of former residents of the facility who said they were abused while there. It was only at the state board level that those allegations received any investigation. In another case, a charter school wanted eminent domain power to assert a right of way over someone else’s property. The charter board was good with that, but the State Board of Education shot it down.

This legislation speaks to the bigger issue of what we want charters to be. When they first came into being, the intent of charters was to be laboratories where alternative approaches could be tested without the interference of public-school bureaucracies. Many have succeeded doing exactly that.

But some ideologues are trying to use charters as the leading edge of an educational disruption movement with the intent of dismantling the public school system and the teachers union, replacing it with a marketplace where every parent goes shopping for schools. In that view, the state school board represents market suppression.

It’s a market of sorts, although it lacks the true financial accountability of markets. It’s still public money. The parents would be setting the spending priorities for taxpayers’ money.

For reasons ranging from transportation to time to social networks, the majority of parents still wants their kids in their neighborhood schools. Public schools are not going to be subsumed by charters in Utah. In fact, the majority of elementary charter school students eventually make their way back to the public school system at high school. There simply isn’t any widespread support for disrupting our public school system from students, parents or taxpayers.

Does the State Board of Education have to approve all charters? Not necessarily, but taking the state board out of the equation isn’t going to improve anyone’s education. Charter schools are a worthwhile endeavor, but they still have to fit within the larger education system. Leaving all charter school decisions to charter advocates will not provide that fit.