Tribune editorial: Utah’s charter school system needs to stop encouraging longshots

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) The American International School of Utah will close on Aug. 15 after years of financial struggles.

In the last two weeks, we have seen the high and the low of Utah charter schools.

The high came April 30, when U.S. News & World Report issued its annual report on the best high schools in each state. The top three in Utah — and six of the top 10 — were charter schools.

The low came Thursday when one of the largest charters — American International School of Utah — announced it is closing in August after years of financial difficulties. More than 1,300 AISU students have to find new schools.

Inconsistency has been the hallmark of Utah’s charter school era, something that was entirely expected. The charters were meant to be education’s disrupters, and disruption is messy.

But after more than two decades, it's apparent that Utah charters are not going to upend public education. Most Utah kids likely will always attend traditional public schools, and charters will at best play a niche role.

Those top performing high schools? They are the charters that started early with the direct blessing of their school districts. They had a clear focus on academic performance and early college courses. They’ve had consistent funding and success.

That is not the profile of AISU. Intended as a blend of American and international students, AISU was chancy from the beginning. It’s only been around for five years, but the current administration admits the first three years were financially mismanaged. One audit required the school to pay back $514,000 in misused special education funds, and the Utah Board of Education identified $125,000 in spending that couldn’t be accounted for. It potentially still owes $5 million to investors.

We’ve arrived at a point where Utah’s charter system needs to mature. After an early explosion, charters’ growth has slowed. But the system is still operated as a market-based free for all where success is hardly assured. We now have enough experience to know which ones have decent chances and which ones are longshots.

The father of Utah charter schools, former Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson, said last year their performance has been a “grave disappointment.” Even with those high performing schools, overall charter test scores are no higher than state averages for all schools.

The people who approve charter schools need to get more discriminating. The ones worth encouraging are not the ones that have outside, for-profit management companies. They aren’t the ones seeking eminent domain powers to demand property for schools. They aren’t the ones that want bonding authority to fund charter school construction. They are the ones that operate transparently in clearly defined niches.

Use the high-performing schools as the models for what charters should be, and stop approving those that operate on a dream and a shoestring.