More specific standards are needed for Utah charter schools when it comes to academic achievement and financial management.
During a meeting Thursday of the State Charter School Board, members discussed wide-ranging concerns over how charter schools budget for facilities and how they compare academically to other Utah public schools and to charter schools nationally. Too little data has been analyzed to know how well Utah charter schools are performing, board members acknowledged.
Charter schools are publicly funded and open to all students. But some of them run into financial trouble over school buildings. Many operate out of rented facilities, or have to raise money to build.
Marlies Burns, director of charter schools at the State Office of Education, said charter administrators are advised to spend less than 22 percent of their budget on facilities. But they are not required to adhere to that recommendation. She said charter schools sometimes will ask the state board to increase their permitted enrollment so they can get more state funding to drive down the percentage cost of buildings.
She suggested some schools have used that mechanism as a crutch to keep their budgets below the guidelines for facility spending, instead of budgeting for facility costs more smartly from the start.
"The charter board has been pretty open to giving them more students to stay out of that hot water," Burns said, telling board members there is "room for improvement" when it comes to decisions on when to grant requests from charter schools to add students and grades.
Too often charter schools don't realize they are underwater with a building contract until after they've signed off leaving them short on money for teacher salaries and programs that would make the school exemplary, said Erin Preston, one of the founders of Herriman-based Providence Hall and a board member of the Utah Charter Network.
Preston cited multiple studies including a 2002 report from the Gates Foundation that links the percentage of money a charter school spends on its building as the greatest indicator of whether the school will succeed or fail.
Preston, who oversaw the construction and retrofit of nine buildings in connection with her role at Providence Hall, consults new charter schools on facility spending. She said she doesn't always see a good business plan, she told board members during Thursday's discussion.
"I am seeing the developer contracts coming in that would have schools committing 25 to 30 percent of ongoing costs dedicated to a facility that probably isn't worth it, that they can't afford and will ultimately impact their ability to staff teachers and programs," she said. She suggested that the board limit spending on buildings to 21 percent of a charter school's budget.
Board member Howard Headlee, founder of American Preparatory Academy in Draper, agreed with Preston and said several charter school budgets he has reviewed allocated too much for buildings.
"Charter schools came to me and said, 'We want to be like you.' I looked at their budget and said 'You can't. Your financing costs are too high,' " Headlee said.
The State Charter School Board is also charged with annually monitoring performance and holding the governing boards of charters schools accountable for that performance.
Some charter school performance standards are set by the State Board of Education, but there are many areas where there is no specific standard, Burns said. Over the past two years, the State Charter School Board has been working on setting some objective and measurable standards to fill the gap, she said.
In an effort to better measure how charter schools are performing, the state has contracted with The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University to analyze charter data.
Currently, 95 charter schools are authorized to operate in Utah, including six that will not open until the 2013-14 school year, according to the State Office of Education. Most are authorized by the State Charter School Board, but several are approved by school districts as allowed by state law.
Charter schools are subject to the same laws and regulations as any Utah public school and must also participate in standardized testing and meet and report yearly progress goals.