Tribune Editorial: When charter schools fail, children go down with them

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

As another charter school hits the cash-flow rocks, the people who oversee charters are asking for more power.

History doesn’t argue for that.

Treeside Charter School in Provo is deep in debt, including $180,000 owed to the state of Utah, and it has filed for bankruptcy protection. School officials hope to reorganize. For now, its 433 students still have a place to go. But with more than 20 creditors and a debt that could run more than $1 million, survival is hardly a sure thing.

It comes three months after another charter, the American International School of Utah, closed its doors weeks before the school year started, sending 1,300 children scrambling to find spots in other schools. AISU was also deep in debt, and administrators were accused of misusing $400,000 in special education funds. Its problems were known for years.

Members of the state Charter School Board, who are appointed by the governor and are mostly charter enthusiasts, want the Utah Legislature to give them more authority to intervene in charters’ management, but members of the Utah Board of Education, who are directly elected by the people, think the charter board hasn’t used the power it already has to limit the damage of failing schools. After the AISU meltdown, the Board of Education has appointed a task force to look at charter governance.

To be clear, most charter schools run financially sound operations. Some, particularly those started and operated by school districts, have produced exemplary results.

The problem comes with riskier players who take advantage of the Legislature’s inclination to think private enterprise should disrupt public education. The schools are required to be non-profit, but they are free to contract with for-profit providers who basically run the schools. Because of that, it’s not clear whether giving the Charter School Board more authority would make things more transparent.

It’s also not clear the industry even sees a problem with closing schools.

Royce Van Tassell, who is executive director of the independent association representing charter school owners, had this to say after the AISU failure: “But it is hardly cause for mourning that a financially and academically failing school is no longer operating. That’s a feature, not a bug, of charter schools.”

You’re in luck, kids. Your school has been featured out of existence.

The justification for this is the market-forces argument that regular public schools don’t excel because they don’t face a fear of failure. But test scores and every other metric have never proven that to be true. On average, the charters score roughly the same or a little below the regular schools.

There is more evidence that the Charter School Board was lax in its oversight of failed schools than it was hamstrung by a lack of authority. At the least legislators should wait for the Utah Board of Education’s task force to report back before considering any plan to further empower the charter board.

Sometimes disruption is just disruption, and no child deserves to be a casualty.