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The nation's charter schools largely are created, overseen and policed by pro-charter advocates, resulting in "an epidemic of fraud, waste, and mismanagement that would not be tolerated in [traditional] public schools," according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
A report released Wednesday shows that taxpayers lack access to key information about how state and federal dollars are used to fuel charter school growth. The Wisconsin-based advocacy organization created the report based on charter school data collected from 12 states and the federal government. In many cases, data was incomplete or agencies failed to comply with requests for records, according to the report.
Emails from the Utah State Office of Education were obtained by researchers, showing enrollment fluctuations at charter schools beyond state guidelines and pushback against a state law prohibiting schools from outsourcing students' private records to third parties.
Though Utah was given high marks for sharing its records, it was seen as giving a pass to charter schools and charter administrators.
"Utah has set standards for charters schools," the report states, "but like other states, its standards may not be fully enforced. Charters appear to have too much influence over regulators."
Charter schools receive public funding, but they operate independently within the public school system.
They are governed by unelected boards and frequently contract with private companies for management and educational services.
Kim Frank, executive director of the Utah Charter Network, said charter schools are equally as transparent as their district counterparts.
"A charter school with 200 kids or 1,000 kids has to do all the reports that Alpine School District has to do," she said. "Every dime and dollar is put into a budget and sent to the office of education."
But Frank also acknowledged that private companies contracted through charters aren't always eager to open their books for review.
Reviewing those firms' budgets "is like pulling teeth," Frank said, but the schools they manage are perform well and students enroll voluntarily.
"I don't mind so much the for-profit side of it as long as they're excellent schools," she said. "Nobody is forcing those students to choose that school."
The State Office of Education and the State Charter School Board do not keep a record of the number, or nature, of private charter management companies operating in the state.
And state data show that Utah's charter schools struggle to comply with reporting requirements.
Last year, 61 percent of charters failed to submit required reports to the state accurately, complete and on time, according to a March review by the State Charter School Board.
Frank said the number of late, incomplete reports is a result of limited resources, not negligence.
School districts have office staff to prepare and submit reports, she said. But at charter schools, administrators work on reports along with their executive duties.
"You wear several hats," she said. "If you don't fill out one little section, then the report doesn't count as being turned in on time."
But beyond dotted I's and crossed T's, the Center for Media and Democracy report suggests large gaps in charter budget accountability. In particular, researchers point to ambiguity in the role and compensation of for-profit firms and ownership of charter school real estate purchased with taxpayer dollars.
Part of the information breakdown, according to the report, is due to charter-friendly laws that favor flexibility over accountability and governing systems that allow charter proponents to police themselves.
States have "pawned off" responsibility over charter schools to authorizing entities, the report states, which are expected to award funds and hold schools accountable.
Most Utah charter schools are authorized by the State Charter School Board, a seven-member board appointed by the governor.
The board has the power to close charters, as it began to do with two schools in late August before their administrators elected to shut down their schools.
In the event of a closure, Frank said, a school's budget, assets and debts are transferred back to the public education system.
"If they're in debt, unfortunately, the state is left holding the bag," she said.
Lawmakers have asked the state school board to review the structure and makeup of the board, and state school board Chairman David Crandall said board members met Tuesday to discuss potential changes.
He said the board likely will debate the issue during its November meeting and submit recommendations to the Utah Legislature.
"That is something we're currently looking at," he said.
The Legislature also approved the creation of a task force this year to study charter school funding. Task force meetings largely have focused on local replacement, or the share of property tax revenue school districts are required to divert to charter schools.
Crandall said the recent focus on charter schools is a natural result of growth at charters, which enroll one out of every 10 public school students in Utah.
"As it grows, I think it's only natural that we take a look at some of those issues," Crandall said, "like how they're funded and some of the oversight and governance issues."
The Center for Media and Democracy estimates that since 1995, $3.7 billion in federal funding has been awarded through the Charter Schools Program, which promotes the creation of new charter schools.
That figure does not include state investment in charter schools, and it includes dozens of "ghost" schools, to which a federal grant was awarded but the school never opened.
No Utah school was included in the list of Charter Schools Program grant recipients.
"Unlike truly public schools, which have to account for prospective and past spending in public budgets provided to democratically elected school boards," the report states, "charter spending is largely a black hole."