Why charter schools matter

David L. Thomas is a member of the Utah State Board of Education, District 4. He is a former State Senator and Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education.

Dave Thomas, Utah State Board of Education District 4.

Utah espouses two fundamental educational principles: First, Article X, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution provides that all Utah children are entitled to a free public education. Second, the Utah Supreme Court has made it clear that parents are responsible for their children’s education in Re J.P.,648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982). There are some in the education community that may believe these two principles are in conflict, but they are not.  The answer which bridges the chasm between mandatory public education and parental rights is school choice.

The ability of parents to decide where and how to educate their children has always been of utmost importance to Utahns. The 1850s saw elementary schools organized by ward houses with a board of trustees appointed by the local bishop to run them. These schools were both religious and secular. They were also supported by local property taxes, a relatively little known fact. By 1869, these schools had evolved into local public school districts, which also included a private secondary school system administered by the LDS Church. In 1890, six years before statehood, the Utah Territorial Legislature enacted the “Free Public School Act.” 

In 1933, the LDS Church discontinued its private secondary school system and encouraged Church members to attend the local public schools. Those public schools allowed for release time for students to attend seminary. Although there were still some parochial schools around, without the LDS Church they were few and far between. By the 1990s Utah had the lowest percentage of private schools anywhere in the United States. The vacuum left by the LDS Church was never really filled. School choice was hamstrung. With the advent of the Homeschooling movement, more choice was interjected into the Utah school system, but it still did not fill the vacuum. It wasn’t until 1998 that a solution to this vacuum came in the form of the “Utah Charter Schools Act.” The first charter school was opened in the fall of 1999. Today, there are 72 charter schools with over 40,000 students. 

So why is school choice so important? First, it respects the parental role in the upbringing of children; it allows for parental involvement. Second, it fosters competition. When schools compete, innovation is the result. In sum, it fosters experimentation and creativity in the instruction of our children. Third, it embodies the notion that “one size does not fit all.” Children are not widgets; each is unique. School choice recognizes that uniqueness and allows for flexibility. 

This is not to say that traditional public schools are failing because in most cases, they are not. It does go to show, however, that allowing for a menu of educational choices provides an openness that forces everyone to do better. How much better? In Illinois, seven out of the top ten schools in ACT performance were charter schools. Charter school students in Illinois scored on average 0.5 higher in their ACT composite score and there was an 11 percent higher chance for a charter school student to attend college over traditional school students. Other studies have shown comparable trends. In Utah, charter schools generally outperform traditional public schools in AYP by a count of 95.5 percent passage rate to 83.2 percent. Recently, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Utah tenth in the nation for 2010. 

But there is a problem with Utah charter schools: Funding. While Utah charter schools, which are public schools, do receive WPU (weighted pupil unit) funding, they do not have the same revenue resources as traditional public schools; namely, property tax. 

It is generally through the property tax that schools fund their facilities. Charter schools do not have that independent funding source. Instead, charter schools must rely upon the largess of the Utah Legislature. Each year, the Legislature funds what is called the “Local Replacement.” It is used to replace property taxes for charter schools. In reality, however, it is a poor substitute and one that is subject to much infighting because the Legislature requires that traditional public schools share a portion of their property taxes with charter schools. It is essential for our charter schools to grow, but they cannot without a stable funding source for capital improvements. 

One solution would be to impose a statewide charter school property tax, but this has been met with opposition in the Utah Legislature. Hence, the problem continues to fester. But it is a problem worth solving and and as an educational community, we should be solving it. For charter schools are not the enemy, they are us.

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25 comments to Why charter schools matter

  • Yorgus Smeagle

    Charter schools are private education at public expense, nothing more and nothing less.

    • David Thomas

      This is a common misconception. While it is true that most charter schools outside of Utah are private institutions, in Utah, Charter Schools are public schools. What Charter Schools allow for is flexibility within the arena of public instruction. I would invite you to learn more about Charter Schools in Utah. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

      • Rochelle

        Charter schools are public education … not private education at public expense. David, If I could show you documentation currently in a student’s file which proves FAPE has not been provided would you, as a member of the USOE Board of Education, be interested in seeing that? We would gladly give you access to the education files. What possible reason could the district object to unless they know they’ve violated Utah and federal IDEA law. I believe that the education system in Utah is still strong enough to be willing to hold itself to scrutiny and fix mistakes that have been made.

    • Elizabeth Ziegler

      Thank you for your comment. However, charter schools are public schools. Here is the law that defines the purpose of charter schools: http://le.utah.gov/~code/TITLE53A/htm/53A01a050300.htm. Note the Utah Legislature created charter schools to “establish new models of public schools.”

  • Rochelle

    If parents are responsible for their child’s education under Utah case law, at what point does a given district becone responsible for proper special education placement under IDEA federal law?

    Wouldn’t the appropriate course of action be to tie funding to the individual student rather than a given education system? The family could them chose the appropriate placement. Any additional funding for that chosen placement, special education aside since there are other laws in play, would come from out of pocket. Schools would have to better themselves to get student enrollment/funding.

    As it is, the system of checks and balances where education is concerned does not exist.

    • David Thomas

      Backpack funding is a unique solution and one that I have investigated. I am a believer in backpack funding of the WPU. However, I have a harder time with backpacking capital outlay funding. Here is the problem: Let’s assume that you have a classroom of 30 students. When a child leaves the class with full backpack funding, he takes with him that percentage of the funding used to build the facility. Even though the student is no longer there, the cost of the school building is the same. The School District must still pay the same on its bonds. Even if all 30 of the students were to leave, and there is no need for a teacher, the physical classroom remains as an on-going asset. It would be easy to suggest that under those circumstances you simply sell the asset, but it isn’t that simple. You can’t sell one classroom of a school building. By the same token, you cannot default on the bond, as that would not be fair to bondholders, many of whom buy school bonds as a hedge against inflation and for their retirement. This is why backpack funding cannot work with the capital outlay. The idea of backpack funding is one of the basis of a school voucher program, which I have supported. However, the populace of Utah turned down that funding mechanism by a general election vote and I respect their wishes.

      • Rochelle

        David, It’s fine that the capital expense stay with the building, but the student should not be limited to a school which consistently fails to meet that student’s accurately established needs. A school will spend thousands of dollars fighting a no cost service their own staff recommended. How is that reasonable or responsible? They will spend $23k a year on a program which costs far less if provided directly to the student … while lowering class sizes. It doesn’t make sense to start a new program at taxpayer expense (vouchers) when the existing system is hemmoraging.
        Are you aware that it’s very easy for districts/schools to simply manipulate educational records in their favor regardless of the harm caused to the student and the taxpayers of this state? That students are being denied dispute resolution?

        • David Thomas

          As I noted in a prior post, we have a new audit structure that is very active at investigating allegations of wrongdoing. Hence, I would be interested in any information or documentation that you can provide.

  • Rochelle

    However, this law says nothing regarding education and that being a parental responsibility. If I missed something in the rather verbose document you provided a link to, please post the clause which identifies providing education as being the responsibility of the parent.

    • Elizabeth Ziegler

      I believe this is the section to which Mr. Thomas is referring in his blog post:

      “In contrast, ‘legal custody’ is defined in section 78-3a-2(7) as a relationship embodying the following rights and duties:

      the right to physical custody of a child; the right and duty to protect, train and discipline him; the duty to provide him with food, clothing, shelter, education, and ordinary medical care; the right to determine where and with whom he shall live, and the right, in an emergency, to authorize surgery or other extraordinary care.”

      • Rochelle

        Elizabeth, Thank you, However, under the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, provision of education is a state responsibility. Should the parents choose to not access a FAPE, they have the freedom to provide an alternate education … but it has to be their choice, which is not the obligation for other taxpayers to fund. Our school system not doing it’s job does not put that burden on the parent as long as that parent is paying taxes for a FAPE.

  • Harvey

    Utah law says children are entitled to “a” free public educuation, not that taxpayers must fund the parents’ education of choice. The law cited in Mr. Thomas’ article says parents are responsible for the education of thier children, not that the taxpayer must fund the education choice of parents.

  • Sally Joe

    The charter school that my kids attend has 400 kids in it from K-6. Maybe you would like to see those kids added to the already large classroom sizes in your public school? If not, maybe you should learn a little about the benefits to all of charter schools in Utah.

  • David Thomas

    Utah law requires that the taxpayers fund a free public education. Because of our Utah values, as noted in the Supreme Court case, we choose to honor parental rights by providing for a form of public school choice. This is how we balance parental rights with mandatory public education. Another choice would be homeschool. I homeschooled my children for many years. That choice, however, is outside the public education system so no taxpayer monies were used. Notwithstanding, I have supported various forms of backpack funding which would have allowed the WPU to go with the homeschooled child. As for whether competition works within the public education system, I would invite you to look at the results. Utah is 10th nationally on the ACT/SAT combined scaled scores for college and career readiness. There are waiting lists to attend Utah Charter Schools. One might say that competition within a closed system with a fixed amount of money available is the most intense competition you could have.

  • Martin

    David, I was a little surprised to see you claim that “most charter schools outside of Utah are private institutions.” I’m not sure what you mean. By definition, in every state, charter schools are public schools. That was the whole purpose of them when Al Shanker and the Minnesota folks started talking about them in the late-1980’s and early 1990’s.

  • Rochelle

    The education provided must have more than trivial education benefit. The question becomes … has the state met it’s obligation to set up education in a way where there are checks and balance and where the parent can support that education.

    This law in no way says it’s the parent’s responsibility to provide the education. If anything, it alludes to what Thomas Jefferson foresaw over 200 years ago … that only an educated populace is capable of preventing this democracy from deteriorating into a tryanny.

    The moment our education system becomes above the law and is free to destroy whatever documentation and person has the audacity to reflect something other than what that system tells people to believe, we forfeit the experiment begun by our Founding Fathers.

    The funding report tells a different story than what is being publicized … not only are we the lowest funded state in the nation, we fund at barely half the national average. Yet, schools are free to spend as much money as possible on failed services and not be responsible with taxpayer funding. There’s no consequence for spending more money when spending less delivers a better service.

    Education is the one service industry which does not require accuracy or accountability. You don’t take your car in to be serviced for a brake problem and it be okay for the mechanic to fix the windshield wipers but document that the brakes were fixed. When a hemopheliac goes to the dcotor, aspirin therapy is not accpetable treatment even if it’s what the doctor says is best. Only in education can they make things up as they go along and not even the USOE Board of Education will check for accuracy.

    We need to fix what’s broken before we start funding another folly. THAT’S why vouchers failed.

    • David Thomas

      While I appreciate the sentiment, I disagree that the State Board does not check for accuracy. Under the State Board’s strategic plan, “Promises to Keep,” we are in the process of implementing a completely new testing protocol, which demands accountability. Computer Adaptive Testing together with the EPAS system (ACT)are reform measures that will change the way students, teachers and schools are accountable to parents and taxpayers. As for programs that waste monies, two years ago we completely revamped our internal auditor structure and brought on auditors who can do not only financial audits, but performance audits as well. Since that time, the State Board has been very active in ferreting out ineffective programs. While there will always be some programs that do not measure up, rest assured that the State Board is putting in place structures and procedures to ensure we get the biggest bang for the buck. In fact, recently the US Chamber ranked Utah as getting the best return on investment for public education.

    • Michael Christensen


      If Utah expends only about 1/2 the national average in per pupil spending, yet obtains results better than 40 other states in the nation, what’s your complaint? The only reason to complain about low budgets in Utah’s public schools is if you’re an employee of the public school who wants a better salary!

      As a financial conservative, I find it really, really hard to complain about a system that costs less money AND provides significantly better than typical results!

      Charter Schools are working for Utah’s children. We need to do more of what works.

  • Clearify things like Patriotism,Fraternizing,Pledging Allegiance,as distinct from or in conformity with Education because as its been from my experience of the subject of “Education”, everything mentioned above has been kept convoluted for confusion as a purpose to guide or misguide(deceive)Students to a pre-existing Fraternity or Sorority.

    • Michael Christensen

      Ranting on the internet about the failures of public education is most effective when accompanied by at least 2nd grade spelling and grammar skills.