This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Charter School Funding Task Force bill released recently that would push at least $16 million from local school districts into public charter schools is just the latest legislative manipulation to invade the classrooms of traditional schools.
Twists and tweaks through the years have diverted millions of taxpayer dollars from districts to charters, which don't have the oversight from the districts that traditional schools do.
Adding insult to injury, the executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools who used to be vice president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, run by the charter champion Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper says if we thought charters could operate more cheaply than regular schools, we just got it wrong.
Royce Van Tassell told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that it is a fallacy to expect charters to operate with less funding, since the law holds the alternative schools to most of the same standards as traditional ones.
"What was said and done and promised a decade ago," he said, "isn't necessarily what [the] Legislature or succeeding lawmakers have said and done and promised."
Van Tassell's former boss and mentor, Stephenson, co-chairman of the task force recommending the $16 million shift to charters, was the main official making those pledges that we now shouldn't heed.
The taxpayer association's website through the years has posted numerous articles praising charter schools' ability to operate more cheaply than traditional campuses.
In a 2006 editorial in the association's newsletter, Stephenson wrote: "Charter schools educate for less. Utah charter schools spent $1,312 less in ongoing funds per student in FY2005 compared to district schools, according to the taxpayers association's annual analysis of public education spending in Utah. On a percent basis, charter schools spent 21.8 percent less per student than traditional schools."
Now, Stephenson and his cohorts argue that charters don't need less; they need more. So have we been lied to all these years?
Stephenson has long been a critic of traditional public schools and has pushed many initiatives that would steer money from already-underfunded classrooms to his own pet projects like charter schools, or digital learning tools provided by private vendors.
One such vendor pushed by Stephenson and eventually chosen by the Utah Office of Education was DigitalBridge, which offered a tracking program to measure student progress. That company went bankrupt before its services were completed, and the state was out $3.5 million.
As co-chairman of the Joint Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee in 2013, Stephenson pushed through a formula that gave more weight to the senators on the panel, many of whom were in Stephenson's mold, than to House members.
The result: Most of the top 10 funding priorities were Stephenson's projects, and they came at the expense of such needs as teacher training, smaller classrooms and early-education programs.
Now, charters are gobbling away at neighborhood schools' budgets a decade after Stephenson promised they would not.
Fox guarding the henhouse? • One of the newer members of the Legislature championing the growing appetites of charter schools is state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, who was the director of a charter school until she was pushed out by the Charter School Board amid allegations from parents and teachers of low teacher morale and efforts to block parental involvement in the school's management.
Her story is emblematic of the insider mentality that exists between legislators such as Stephenson and charter school professionals.
Coleman was first placed on administrative leave from Monticello Academy in 2009, before she was let go entirely. She has since sued the Charter School Board for unlawful firing.
While the lawsuit was in place, her husband, former West Valley City Councilman Joel Coleman, was appointed interim state superintendent of public schools, chosen by a school board much in the image of Stephenson.
Kim Coleman was elected in 2014 after prevailing in a Republican Party battle with incumbent Jim Bird, who was targeted by the GOP's right wing after he supported the Count My Vote compromise that provided alternate paths to the primary election ballot in the wake of concerns that the traditional caucus/convention system put too much power in the hands of the few.