Op-ed: Solving real problems new public charter schools face

December 02, 2016

The Salt Lake Tribune
December 2, 2016

The Salt Lake Tribune recently editorialized that public charter schools "cherry-pick" their students. The claim that public charter schools "cherry-pick" students is not only false, but was fully addressed in statute many years ago. Charters accept anyone who walks through the door; when they reach capacity, state and federal law requires them to admit students via a random lottery. Raising tired, false claims against public charter schools is something I have come to expect from fringe special interests, not a reputable newspaper.

The Tribune's concerns regarding lease-purchase agreements and the procurement code is equally revealing. A new public charter school's only option is to lease a building from a private, for-profit entity. This is not the public charter school's fault. The state of Utah wants public charter schools, but is unwilling to assume the risks associated with constructing their buildings. Thus, state policy pushes that construction risk onto developers, which means public charter schools spend more money on interest payments and less on learning in the classroom.

The Utah Taxpayers Association's most recent school spending report illustrates this point. On a per-pupil basis, public school districts (whose bonds enjoy state backing) paid an average of $258 in interest, while public charter schools paid $526.

Charter critics, including The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board, further allege it was inappropriate for public charter schools to adopt a lease-purchase agreement without going through procurement procedures applicable to goods and services. While acknowledging state code allows public charter schools to do this, these opponents never seem to consider what applying those procedures to lease-purchase agreements would mean.

Far more than transactions involving goods or services, land and building transactions necessitate confidentiality. Many people or firms can provide a backhoe or accounting services, and the number willing to provide those goods and services changes depending on demand. By contrast, the amount of land, and thus of buildings, is finite. Utah has not had "new" land in several millenia.

Land speculators who learn that a public entity wants to purchase land or use a lease-purchase agreement to obtain a building may purchase the relevant parcel or building, raise the price exorbitantly and hold the public entity (really the taxpayers!) hostage.

To avoid that malign outcome, the Legislature does not apply transparency laws to public entities looking to lease or purchase real property. The "Open and Public Meetings Act" allows public officials to discuss these negotiations in closed session. And the "Procurement Code" does not apply to "acquisition or disposal of real property."

Just like the claims of "cherry picking" students, the issue of lease-purchase agreements and the procurement code have been asked and answered many times. Nonetheless, charter opponents continue to raise them while feigning concern for the public interest. If the cost of lease-purchase agreements is such a concern, The Tribune should urge the Legislature to pledge Utah's AAA bond rating to new public charter schools just like it does for new public district schools.

But that is not the goal of those who oppose public charter schools; they just want public charter schools to go away. Utahns welcome public charter schools as a permanent part of our public education system. These schools educate 11 percent of public school students. Considered collectively, they educate more students than all but Utah's largest school districts.

Many public charter schools are posting incredible results; others are struggling. We should focus on what we can learn from the best and how we can improve those lagging behind. A constant focus on baseless accusations and unfounded concerns doesn't benefit anyone, especially not our children.

It's disappointing, if not surprising, to hear the same futile criticisms raised over and over again by extremists who want public charter schools to disappear. I just wouldn't expect to see a reputable newspaper like The Tribune lend their credibility to such claims.

M. Royce Van Tassell is executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.


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