Explainer: Charter schools are public schools and therefore receive tax dollars

Sunday , August 06, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

ANNA BURLESON, Standard-Examiner Staff

Linda Butcher was shocked when she got her tax statement.

The Davis County resident is paying $14.46 to something called a “state charter school levy.”

“You look at it and you say, wait, why am I paying for a charter school when my grandkids go to public school?” Butcher said. “I don’t remember us having to pay for charter schools. I thought it was an option.”

Charter schools were established in Utah in 1999, according to the 2017 state charter school report. They have always been public and are therefore funded with taxpayer dollars. One exception: Charter schools don’t receive transportation funding.

As public schools, they’re held to the same standards as Utah’s district schools. They cannot charge tuition. 

Utah Association of Charter Schools Executive Director Royce Van Tassell said Senate Bill 38, passed during the 2016 legislative session, means charter school funding is listed separately on property tax valuations for the first time.

“It didn’t actually change the amount of funding, it was just designed to create greater transparency,” he said.

At a recent school board meeting, Ogden School District Business Administrator Zane Woolstenhulme explained charter schools get a percentage of the property tax the school district is able to levy and also gets money from the state education fund, which is funded by income tax dollars.

Woolstenhulme said prior to SB 38, the state took a chunk of the property tax dollars the school districts collect and gave it to charter schools. As part of SB 38, Woolstenhulme said the school districts had to decrease their school board levies.

“It did come out of our pocket, but it’s transparent to the taxpayers,” he said.

So, in short, your money has always been funding charter schools, this is just the first time you’re seeing it. 

The Salt Lake Tribune reported prior to SB 28 that charter schools received less per-student money, something Van Tassell said the legislation helped equalize.

“It would be difficult to identify any meaningful differences in the funding that goes to district schools or charter schools,” he said.

As of last school year, there were 127 charter schools in Utah serving 71,494 students. This is about 11 percent of all of the children attending pubic schools in the state, according to the annual report. A decade ago, it was less than 3 percent.

And more charter schools are slated to open this fall, including a satellite campus for Leadership Learning Academy in Ogden.

“You have a lot of families who are looking to meet the specific needs of individual children,” Van Tassell said.

Critics of charter schools on a national scale have cited a lack of oversight. In 2016, the Salt Lake Tribune found some Utah charter schools outsource their administrative jobs and academic development to a select few private companies.

Van Tassell said anyone who assumes only privileged caucasian families send their children to charter schools is wrong.

In 2016, Utah’s charter schools have 5 percent fewer low-income students and 2 percent fewer English-language learners but have surpassed traditional district schools on ethnic minority enrollment by 1 percentage point.

“In Utah, you’ll see the number of students who attend a charter school look remarkably similar to all of the district schools in the area around the charter school because they’re generally drawing from the same set of students,” Van Tassell said. 

Utah State Charter School Board Executive Director Jennifer Lambert said it’s important for people to realize even though many charter schools have specialties or focused area of study — like the arts or technology — that’s on top of baseline state requirements all “regular” public schools must meet.

“Regardless, if a student is going to charter or district school, it’s still a child being educated in public education,” she said.

Charter schools must get approval by an authorizer — a school district, higher education institution or the state charter school board — to open. The state board authorizes most of Utah’s charter schools.

The school must abide by its charter to continue operating or suffer possible closure by their authorizer, which happened recently with West Valley City’s Kairos Academy. The school is fighting its closure, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Both Lambert and Van Tassell said charter school teachers also have to have the same qualifications they would need at district schools, and students are also required to take the same standardized tests like Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence, more commonly known as SAGE.

On average, SAGE proficiency rates at charter schools increased from 2014 to 2016, but district proficiency rates overall were higher in 2016, according to the Utah charter school report.

“Charter schools are public schools,” Lambert said. “They’re required to function as a public school. They have the same requirements that come with the funding.”

If more students seek attendance than are allowed in the school’s charter, the school is required by law to hold a random lottery drawing to admit more students.

Lambert said there are exceptions to that rule. For instance, siblings of already admitted students are given preference.

Lambert said in her time with the board, it has never found evidence of a school improperly selecting students who would, for example, reflect positively on the school. They do investigate parent accusations of that, though.

“Usually, it stems from they wanted their child to get in and they didn’t get in,” she said.

Another difference between district and charter schools are their buildings. School districts must seek taxpayer approval through a bond initiative to fund new facilities or building improvements that aren’t affordable from the general fund.

Van Tassell said charter schools can’t levy property taxes and the people seeking to open them often don’t have the funds for a new building once their charter is approved.

“What happens is they turn to private developers who say, ‘We’re comfortable if you execute on your charter you’ll get enough students so the state would provide funding through the normal funding strings to repay us for having built that school,’” he said.

Butcher believes the money that charter schools receive is taking away from the district’s schools. Charter schools receive a portion of the tax dollars collected from the school district in which they’re located.

Van Tassell doesn’t see it that way because the roughly 71,000 students attending charter schools in Utah aren’t attending district schools. They’re not using those facilities, supplies or filling up those classrooms.

“Then the districts don’t have to hire as many teachers or build as many buildings,” he said. “Their costs go down as well.”

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports. You can also subscribe to her weekly education newsletter.

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