Tribune Editorial: Charter school accountability? We’re still hoping

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

We’ve been here before. A charter school dies in a fiery crash, and Utah leaders decide charters need a closer watch.

It’s been going on since at least 2010, when a legislative audit found multiple weaknesses in the financial oversight of charters.

Improvements were made then, but by 2013 the state decided it needed to create reports for every charter, which included an evaluation of their finances. That was supposed to give charter school overseers a baseline to judge financial viability.

But here we are, and the Utah Board of Education is appointing a task force to address weak financial oversight of charter schools.

The charter system was created by the Utah Legislature out of a belief that outliers were the best way to bring innovation to schools. Convinced the innovators shouldn’t be shackled, legislators gave wide berth for charters to develop their own financial models.

That has turned charter education into a bit of a dice roll.

The innovators, it seems, can be speculators. If they can sell enough parents on their concept, there’s taxpayer money waiting to be tapped. Many schools succeed. Some fail. It’s gambling with children. Whatever the limitations of traditional public schools, they don’t just vanish like some charters do.

And it’s not just about the failures. It’s about the time it takes to recognize them.

In the case of AISU, it literally took years of financial mismanagement before the Utah Charter School Board finally cracked down. By then, it had apparently misspent hundreds of thousands of public dollars.

In 2015, it was Allianza Academy. After putting the school on probation for financial problems for a year, the Utah Charter School Board announced a week before school started that it should be terminated. Not surprisingly, there weren’t enough kids who showed up the next week to continue, so parents of 260 students had to scramble for new schools.

The Board of Education’s latest move is tacit recognition that the people it tried to delegate to — the Charter School Board — hasn’t provided the necessary oversight. What is particularly frustrating is the taxpayer funds that the charters get isn’t even coming from the state. It comes from the school districts where the charters reside, and those districts have no control over how the money is spent.

The charter school board is the classic regulatory closed loop. Overseeing charter schools requires charter school experience, the argument goes, which only charter school operators tend to have. As a result, the people watching the wallet are the ones who want to keep that wallet open.

It’s time for real reform of the financial oversight of charter schools. After a decade of fixes that didn’t fix, this task force should look at a complete overhaul.