If you don’t have school aged children then you might not be aware that several years ago the state expanded its public school offerings by adding charter schools to the mix. What exactly are charter schools? They are public schools open to all students with varying curricular emphases. They operate on public funds and without tuition, which allows parents, students and teachers to try new strategies to inspire students and to experiment with innovative ways of educating. There are nearly 82 public charter schools operating in Utah serving some 40,000 students. The schools serve students in the full range of K through 12 and specialize in curriculum from math & engineering to the performing & visual arts.
For the most part charter schools are subject to the same rules and funding limitations as traditional public schools. Income tax, which is constitutionally appropriated to public education, is divided equally across the state in what is called the weighted pupil unit and that funding follows the student to whichever public school the student attends. Districts are able through property tax to raise additional funds for local schools, which does not necessarily follow students to the school they attend but stays within the district. The Legislature appropriates funds each year to replace some of the local property tax revenues that are not available to charter schools.
This question of how to ensure that all our public schools receive the funding they need is one the Legislature has struggled with. Obviously money is tight and every school could use more. Property tax funding has been a sacred cow for traditional public schools. However, charter schools are in high demand and many parents and students want the unique curricular experience charters have to offer. There are several different proposals on how to ensure that all our public schools receive adequate funding. Many believe that all public education funding should be equalized across the state and follow the student to any school whether traditional or charter. We are considering HB 313, which will slowly equalize property tax revenue between traditional and charter public schools. There are another half dozen bills related to public school funding — a result of challenging economic times. I expect rigorous debate on the issues up until we adjourn on March 10.
No matter which proposal carries the day, I believe our mix of traditional and charter schools gives our students a wide range of educational possibilities that are theirs for the taking.
Brad Wilson represents House District 15 in Davis County. He is writing weekly articles during the legislative session about hot topics. He can be reached at Bradwilson@utah.gov during the legislative session.